Anna Trevorrow, At-large Portland Charter Commissioner

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Non-Citizens Lobby For Voting Rights In Portland

Non-Citizens Lobby For Voting Rights In Portland

Portland Phoenix Article on Resident Voting

Should non-citizens vote?

By JEFF INGLIS | February 17, 2010

We Americans know we don't like taxation without representation in our democracy, but should we allow participation without naturalization? The Portland Charter Commission, tasked with recommending changes big and small to the city's governing document, is discussing just that question, and will likely ask city residents to vote on it in November.

The big question before the commission got going was whether they would seek to create an elected-mayor-with-power position, rather than the ceremonial-figurehead-selected-by-the-councilors position we have now. But, led by Green Independents Ben Chipman and Anna Trevorrow, they've moved past that (answer: yes, and they're also recommending we choose the mayor by instant-runoff voting, a system that will give third parties more clout but may not change the actual electoral outcome) and are on to the question of whether non-citizens should be allowed to vote in Portland's municipal elections.

Before he spoke to the commissioners in a public meeting, Ron Hayduk, a social scientist at the City University of New York, spoke to the Phoenix about what this might mean.

Hayduk reports that in the first part of American history, many places — as many as 40 states and territories — allowed non-citizens to vote. That may sound nice, but those rights came mostly via laws designed to restrict voting rights to property owners, a rule that took years to overturn.

As voting rights expanded, governments hoping to avoid challenges to their existing power (often from poor and immigrant populations who were finding their political voices) introduced other rules, such as poll taxes and literacy tests.

Now a third party finds itself with significant power in Portland, and is moving to open the franchise to non-citizens. Chipman observes that Maine is a leader in encouraging voter participation, allowing same-day voter registration as well as permitting convicted criminals to vote from prison. This would be another way to get more people involved in governing.

"We don't have a problem with too many people voting," he observes. He wants to get people more involved in the community, and to acknowledge the involvement people already have. Chipman observes that an American citizen could move to Portland from Texas the week of the election, know nothing about local issues, and cast a valid ballot — and says it's not fair that people who have lived here for years and been deeply involved in those same issues can't vote at all. "They're stakeholders," he says. (Estimates of Portlanders in this situation range between 4000 and 5000.)

Legal immigrants typically take between eight and 10 years to earn citizenship, if they decide to. "Many of our immigrants are refugees" with legal status, Trevorrow says, who have kids in the public schools and pay property, income, and sales taxes yet at present lack a voice in how that money is spent — at least for the period before they become citizens. Some, for whom renouncing another citizenship would mean loss of property or ability to visit relatives abroad, never become US citizens and never have a voice in how their new home is governed.

It's not without controversy. Apart from the question of whether such a move is legal without action from the state Legislature (a bill to allow just this option to all Maine municipalities failed last session), America's historical cultural wariness toward people from other countries is also at play. (It's ironic, Hayduk notes, in "this nation of immigrants," but "it's an old periodic conflict" in which we must "talk about what divides us" as well as things we have in common.)

And while seven immigrants asked the commissioners to allow it, several commissioners appear wary of letting non-citizens vote, suggesting that if they want to have a voice, they become US citizens. "Immigrants want this to happen," Trevorrow says. But since citizens get to choose whether it does, the real question is whether Americans want this to happen.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Daily Sun Article on Resident Voting in Portland

Charter Commission taking up voting rights for non-citizens
Measure would allow legal immigrants to vote in municipal elections

By Casey Conley

Weeks after tentatively agreeing on a new system for electing mayors, the charter commission on Thursday will discuss extending voting rights to non-citizen immigrants living permanently in Portland.

Advocates of the change, which would apply only to municipal elections, say immigrants pay taxes and send their students to local schools and therefore should have a voice on local issues.

Opponents of the proposal say Portland's immigrants, like those living elsewhere in the U.S., can and should vote as soon as they've completed the citizenship process.

Non-citizen, legal immigrant voting has been an on-again, off-again issue in some city circles for years as the immigrant population has swelled over the last decade. Each year, roughly 500 new immigrants arrive in Portland, and in 2009 alone the city's Refugee Services Program assisted more than 1,400 new residents.

Nicole Clegg, a city spokesperson, said concrete figures for the total number of immigrants living here won't be available until the 2010 census figures are released. Still, some have estimated that between 4,000 and 5,000 immigrants are living legally in Portland, a city with a total population of about 65,000.

The commission will begin discussion on the issue Thursday night at 5:30 p.m. at City Hall in what commissioners expect will be the first of two meetings devoted to the subject.

Voters in 2008 approved the charter commission process, and in June, 2009, nine commissioners were elected, joining three others chosen by the city council. Thus far, the body has recommended switching from a ceremonial mayor to an elected mayor and using ranked-choice voting -- where voters rank candidates by preference to ensure the winner is favored by a majority -- to select that mayor.

The body has until July to finalize their recommendations, which be placed on the Nov. 2010 ballot. Voters must approve any change for it to take effect.

Commissioner Anna Trevorrow believes excluding so many people from local politics and school budget matters is a clear sign the current system "is not really working" for everyone.

"Once they get here, they have to wait five years minimum in order to even apply for citizenship. Once they do that, there is a fee involved, and they have to wait for the processing of the application and take some tests in order to attain citizenship," she said, explaining the "logistical hurdles" involved with becoming a citizen.

Meanwhile, she says these residents enroll their children in local schools, pay taxes, start businesses and participate in the community. "When there are cuts to the budget that directly affect children of the immigrant community, they ought to have some say in how those funds are being allocated."

Commissioner Richard Ranaghan, who was the only commissioner to vote against ranked-choice voting, believes "only citizens should be allowed to vote."

"They have the ability to vote once they've completed the steps to become a citizen," he said. "No one is denying them the right to vote. But I don't think anyone should be handed it without going through the process."

In the only recent test of non-citizen voting, a bill introduced last year in the Maine Legislature by State Sen. Justin Alfond, D., Portland, that would have extended voting rights to non-citizens was defeated.

Commissioner Tom Valleau says he's still making up his mind on the issue. "I'm still doing my research and still doing my thought process, but I lean toward the belief that voting is a privilege that comes with citizenship," he said.

Valleau says he will listen to presentations on Thursday from state and local experts, as well as city officials expected to explain any local issues with the measure, before deciding.

To date, the commission has made reached tentative agreements on an elected mayor and ranked choice voting -- two issues that elicit strong opinions and viewpoints -- but Trevorrow says non-citizen voting end up as the panel's most controversial subject.

"Where the commission is going to fall on this, I don't know," she said. "I feel like it's a good idea to put it out there to voters because it gives it a chance, it's not just 12 people deciding the fate of a whole group out of the community, it's the community deciding."

Portland Daily Sun Article