Portland City Council to consider enfranchising immigrants

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PORTLAND — Two potential City Charter changes will be considered at the City Council meeting Monday, Aug. 13.

One requires additional financial reporting for local candidates.

The second, sponsored by Mayor Ethan Strimling and Councilor Pious Ali, would amend Article IV to allow legal immigrants, including refugees and asylees, the right to vote in municipal elections.

The change would not allow legal immigrants to run for or serve in elected office.

“This is not about me, the numbers are not significant, it is just the right thing to do,” Ali said last month. “It is the spirit and sentiment behind it.” 

On Tuesday evening, the School Board was expected to vote on whether it would support the measure, but the question will ultimately be decided by voters if councilors approve placing both charter changes on the Nov. 6 ballot.

City voters previously turned down the voting change, 52 percent to 48 percent, in a 2010 referendum.

A native of Ghana who has been in Maine since 2002, Ali said he wrote a letter and testified on behalf of the change in 2010, but that was the extent of campaigning for it.

Three years later, Ali became the first Muslim elected to public office in Maine when he won an at-large School Board seat. In 2016, he won an at-large City Council seat.

Alain Nahimana, executive director of the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center, said Aug. 3 he is in favor of the principle, but remains ambivalent about this proposal.

“The ultimate goal is inclusivity, to have all residents have their voices heard,” he said. “There are technicalities about the language that are unclear for me at this point. The language should be clear to allow people to vote, to know what they are voting for and clear that people know who is eligible to vote or not.”

Abdullahi Ali, Gateway Community Services founder and CEO, said Tuesday it is time to give a stronger voice to legal immigrants in Portland.

“These are people who live in work and Portland, pay rent taxes and are part of the economy,” he said. “They need to have a say in the education of their children and how their city has run.”

There are precedents for extending the vote to legal immigrants.

Ten cities and towns in Maryland, all clustered around Washington, D.C., allow legal immigrants to vote in municipal elections. Included is College Park, with a population of about 30,000.

Legal immigrants can also vote in Chicago and San Francisco under certain circumstances.

City research done in 2010 also found noncitizens were allowed to vote in 40 states and territories until a little more than 90 years ago.

Neither Pious Ali nor Abdullahi Ali, who are unrelated, expect language to be a barrier for new voters. While state law requires ballots to be written in English, U.S. citizenship requires proficiency, but not fluency in English.

“There are people who are citizens whose English is not strong,” Abdullahi Ali said.

For Pious Ali, the overall message in the charter change is key.

“I think it is more of expounding what Portland already is, an inclusive city. This continues the trend,” he said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Portland City Councilor Pious Ali said allowing legal immigrants to vote “continues the trend” of creating an inclusive city for its residents.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.