It’s been five years since Luc Samuel Kuanzambi and his family filed for asylum in the United States. In that time, he’s worked at several jobs in Portland and enrolled two of his children in Portland Public Schools. He likes to be active in the community and volunteers serving meals to newly arrived asylum seekers.

But in some ways, Kuanzambi, 41, feels disempowered, and he believes many asylum seekers feel the same way. It’s why he supports a proposal before the Portland Charter Commission to extend voting rights in local elections to all residents of legal voting age, regardless of citizenship status.

“The political decisions or policies that are being drafted and rolled out … have an impact on the future and well-being of all these individuals,” said Kuanzambi, who is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “For them to be able to voice their opinion in the format of a vote, that’s not just empowerment but it’s a little bit of justice. It serves justice to people who have a voice but who have been muted.”

The charter commission, which is looking at making a number of changes to the structure of city government, voted last month to advance the proposal to extend voting rights to noncitizens to its attorney to draft into legal language. The commission still needs to take a final vote on the proposal. And all the proposals the commission puts forward will need to be approved by Portland voters to be enacted.

The exact number of Portland residents without U.S. citizenship is unknown, but the proposal could have significant meaning for the city’s immigrant population.

Commissioners are still grappling, however, with concerns about unintended consequences such as noncitizens accidentally voting in state or federal elections, which are open only to citizens. Questions remain about the legality of noncitizen voting in Maine, where Portland would be the first community to allow it. And critics have said noncitizen voting discourages citizenship and the right to vote should be reserved for citizens.


Portland has looked at extending voting rights to some noncitizens in the past, and the latest effort comes as a growing, but still small, number of communities nationwide have implemented similar measures. In January, New York City became the largest city to do so. Starting next year, all legal residents, even if they are not citizens, will be able to vote in that city’s municipal elections, thus extending voting rights to about 800,000 people.

Charter Commissioner Pat Washburn, who brought forward Portland’s proposal, said she was prompted by what she heard in a public hearing at the beginning of the charter review process. “What I realized when I looked into the issue is we have many people who are stuck in limbo between immigration and citizenship and who do not have the right to vote even though they are living in our community, working in our community and sending kids to our schools,” Washburn said. “I think they should have a voice in what happens to them.”


Some advocates for immigrants in Portland have their own concerns about how this more broadly based municipal voting would work, even though they like the idea in principle.

“It’s hard to take a position either way,” said Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, who worries about whether the city would have the right mechanisms in place to prevent noncitizens from mistakenly voting in state or federal elections and what it would do to protect the personal information of noncitizen voters. At the same time, more and more immigrants are coming to Maine and she believes they could benefit from a say in local decisions.

“There is still a lot of work to be done. On the other hand, it’s unfortunate the change is slow,” Chitam said. “The demographics are changing faster than the policies so there’s continuously going to be less representation, especially when it comes to municipal matters and issues that affect everyone regardless of whether you’re a citizen or not.”


Reza Jalali, executive director of the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center, said he thinks the benefits of letting residents without U.S. citizenship vote on municipal matters would outweigh the risks. “Very often important decisions are made that would impact these very people – immigrants and noncitizens,” Jalali said. “As such, we believe that their voices need to be heard, that they should be sitting at the table when important decisions are being made.”

Citizenship and civic engagement are a a key focus of the welcome center, Jalali said, and proper voter education would mitigate the risks of noncitizen voting. “Of course there are risks involved, but I think it’s quite minor and as long as we create an awareness and we help them to become informed citizens and help them to vote in the municipal election, it would be a huge benefit,” he said.

Becoming a U.S. citizen can take years for asylum seekers. Kuanzambi and his family originally came to America on temporary medical visas. His daughter, who was just a few months old at the time, needed treatment that the family could only get in the U.S.

The family has since settled in Portland and filed for asylum for reasons unrelated to the medical diagnosis. The daughter’s health has improved, and she and another child are students in Portland Public Schools. They now have a sibling, born here. Kuanzambi has an employment authorization and has been able to work legally at Wex, the Congolese Community Association of Maine and Hannaford, he said.

Ticvah Matumona, 5, left, and her brother Alexander, 4, with their father Luc Samuel Kuanzambi in their Portland home. Kuanzambi supports a proposal the Portland Charter Commission is weighing to extend the right to vote in municipal elections to noncitizens. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

When the city voted in 2017 on a $64.2 million bond to renovate four elementary schools, Kuanzambi wished he could have voted. “Whether people have the (citizenship) status or not, they have kids that go to public school, including mine. … I’m happy with the outcome of the election, but I feel like we’ve been simply on the receiving end because our voice and our opinion was never solicited,” he said.

Several residents have submitted public comment to the commission against the proposal.


“I am proud of Portland’s welcoming attitude to incoming immigrants and asylees from all countries,” wrote one resident, Catharine Hartnett, in an email to the commission last month. “I believe people who move to our community from other countries make it a better place culturally and economically and are an important component in our state’s growth overall.”

But, Hartnett said she feels strongly that only legal U.S. citizens should be able to vote in elections and worries about the risk of municipal officials unintentionally enabling noncitizens to vote in state and federal elections. “I also understand there will be additional cost to the city to create the mechanisms necessary to enable the practice,” she wrote.

Washburn said she anticipates there would be some cost associated with the proposal for developing voter education materials and any additional work the city clerk’s office may have to do, but said she did not have a ballpark figure. City spokesperson Jessica Grondin said Friday that she was not able to get a comment from City Clerk Katherine Jones on the logistics of noncitizen voting.


Portland first pursued noncitizen voting on local issues through a state senator’s bill in 2009, which did not pass. Among the concerns was the secretary of state’s assertion that separate voter rolls would have to be kept for noncitizens. A city charter commission took up the idea again in 2010, but there were worries about the need for legislation to allow it and about the possibility of a court challenge.

A proposal for noncitizen voting made the ballot anyway, though, after immigration advocates led by the League of Young Voters collected more than 4,500 petition signatures. That November, 52 percent of voters opposed the proposal, which lost by roughly 1,200 votes.


Former Mayor Ethan Strimling and City Councilor Pious Ali revived the idea in 2017 and 2018, but the proposal was not forwarded to voters and was instead referred to a committee, partly because of concerns raised by immigration advocates, including that the new voters could become targeted by anti-immigrant political forces.

Some of the concerns raised before still persist.

Danna Hayes, a spokesperson for the Office of the Maine Attorney General, said last week there is nothing in the Maine Constitution prohibiting noncitizens from voting in municipal elections. But Hayes said in an email that state statute currently requires that voters in municipal elections be U.S. citizens so the statute would have to be changed to allow it.

When the commission submits its final report on recommendations to the City Council, it will need to include an opinion from an attorney that the proposed revisions aren’t prohibited by law or by the Maine or U.S. Constitution.

But at the commission’s March 9 meeting, its attorney, Jim Katsiaficas, said that because of questions about the legality of noncitizen voting in Maine, he probably could not write such an opinion. In an earlier memo to the commission, he said that when the 2010 charter commission examined the issue, the Maine Municipal Association predicted there was a 60 percent chance the proposal would not survive a legal challenge.

There were also questions at that time about whether Article VIII of the Maine Constitution, which allows a municipality to amend its own charter, could open the door for noncitizen voting in city elections. The city attorney at the time, Gary Wood, advised the commissioners that if they wanted to send the proposal to voters, they should do so as a stand-alone question and leave it to the courts to resolve if it was approved.


Since then, Katsiaficas said, legislators have considered a constitutional amendment to limit the right to vote in municipal elections to U.S. citizens and the state attorney general’s office and Maine Municipal Association have said it would be unnecessary because state law already limits voting in municipal elections to citizens.

In a Nov. 12 memo to commissioners, Katsiaficas wrote that “absent an amendment to state law,” it seems likely that state courts would find that “a municipality does not have home rule authority under Maine’s Constitution to amend its charter to extend the right to vote in a municipal election to noncitizens.”

Some commissioners discussed the idea of seeking a second legal opinion on the matter, though Chair Michael Kebede said last week that the commission has not done so. He said the future of the proposal is unclear for now – but if the commission does end up including it in its final recommendations, it could present it to voters separately from the rest of the proposals.


Commissioners at the March 9 meeting expressed both support for and reservations about the proposal. They also heard from school board chair Emily Figdor, who said the proposal was included in a list of recommendations endorsed by the board in November.

More than one quarter of Portland Public Schools students are English language learners and many are the children of immigrants. “We see this as a huge step forward for improving public education, democracy, public participation and engagement in our city,” Figdor said.


Commissioner Robert O’Brien, who also served on the 2010 charter commission, said he supported the proposal then and agrees with the reasoning behind it, but raised questions about the legality and the safety of noncitizen voters.

“We know there are nefarious actors who may try to use public documents to harass or intimidate people registered to vote in this category,” O’Brien said. “For all those reasons, I am hesitant to promote this, seeing as it might not result in the justice it purports to promote.”

Commissioner Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef said that, as an immigrant who became a citizen 10 years ago, she supports the proposal. “Definitely, my mother, she would have voted. …” Sheikh-Yousef said. “Making a decision on the school board, she could not have done that. So yes, I really feel like this is a great step for our immigrant community.”

“This is really hard,” said Commissioner Shay Stewart-Bouley, who said that she worries like O’Brien about the legality and unintended consequences. “I wish there were more guarantees we could have that people will be safe,” Stewart-Bouley said. She said she wanted to be sure “that we’re not creating a situation that feels good in this moment but is harmful down the road.”

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