Anna Trevorrow, At-large Portland Charter Commissioner

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

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