PORTLAND — A handful of people turned out Monday to express their opinions on what is expected to be the most contentious issue on the city ballot in November:
Should non-U.S. citizens be allowed to vote in local elections?
An effort spearheaded by the League of Young Voters earlier this year collected more than 4,500 signatures to put the question on the ballot. The effort was launched in March after the city’s Charter Commission decided against including non-citizen voting rights in its recommended changes to the City Charter.
The City Council on Monday held a public hearing before voting to put the question on the ballot. Voters will be asked in November if they favor allowing legal, non-U.S. citizens who are residents of Portland and at least 18 years old to vote in School Committee and City Council elections, and on the school budget.
Non-citizens would not be allowed to run for office.
Alfred Jacob, a 26-year-old Portland resident who moved to the United States from Sudan when he was a child, spoke in favor of allowing non-citizen voting.
Jacob said the future of Portland will include an increased immigrant population that is becoming part of the community.
“We seek a way of integrating and creating a better Portland,” he said.
The Portland High School alumnus said there is a disconnect between the immigrant community and the school system, despite more than 25 percent of the student population in Portland being immigrants.
“Parents aren’t as involved with the schools,” he said, but allowing them to vote will increase their participation in school issues.
Will Everitt, director of the Maine League of Young Voters, said there are as many as 10,000 immigrants living in Portland, including many refugees from war-torn Sudan and Somalia. And while many have children in the school system – and many of those children are U.S. citizens – it takes six to 10 years to become a naturalized citizen.
“These are people living in Portland, paying taxes and sending their kids to school,” Everitt said.
Other U.S. cities have passed local legislation allowing for non-citizen voting rights, mostly on school issues, including Chicago and Tacoma Park, Md. New York City allowed non-citizen voting for Board of Education elections, but has since done away with the school board.
Everitt said San Franciscans will be asked in November to approve non-citizen voting for school issues.
Non-citizen voting is a divisive issue, though, and some people feel strongly that voting is a right reserved for citizens.
City resident Barbara Harvey said she is against allowing non-citizen voting, and instead encouraged non-citizens to become citizens in order to share all of the benefits of being an American.
“To vote in this country, you have to pledge allegiance to this flag,” Harvey said. “Once you’re a citizen, I’ll drive you to the polls.”
Robert Hains, a regular at City Council meetings, said he, too, opposes non-citizen voting.
“They don’t have the right to vote, and they don’t have the right to run for office,” he said.
Councilors had little to say before voting unanimously to put the question on the November ballot. But Councilor Jill Duson said she would vote against the proposal in November.
Duson said while she feels strongly that “Portland is open and welcoming … and everyone is heard,” she also believes voting is a privilege of citizenship.
Kate Bucklin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or firstname.lastname@example.org