Portland council delays action on giving non-citizens right to vote

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PORTLAND — City voters will decide one referendum question Nov. 6, but they will not be asked to extend voting rights to noncitizens in municipal elections.

In two meetings Monday lasting about seven hours, city councilors tabled sending the voting question to a referendum, but did send the question of requiring additional campaign finance reporting to voters.

Following a public hearing lasting more than two hours, Councilor Pious Ali conceded he lacked the votes to set the referendum on voting rights. At the suggestion of City Manager Jon Jennings, his proposal, co-sponsored by Mayor Ethan Strimling, will be forwarded to the council’s Legislative/Nominating Committee for additional work.

Ali said he looks forward to the committee getting “this done as fast as possible to get it on the ballot for people to decide.”

Councilors who spoke after the hearing on voting rights indicated their reservations were based on process more than principle.

Strimling said he was disappointed by the postponement, because he thought the question was ready for voters to consider.

Councilors Nick Mavodones, Jill Duson, Belinda Ray and Spencer Thibodeau disagreed about the question’s readiness, citing memos from the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project and ACLU of Maine detailing the potential legal consequences of extending the vote without safeguarding against noncitizens mistakenly voting in state or federal elections.

During the hearing, Julia Brown of ILAP said the city needs to understand the legal ramifications, including privacy issues, since noncitizens can face deportation for voting illegally.

Advocates for extending the vote cited 10 cities and towns in Maryland that allow all residents 18 and older to vote in municipal elections regardless of citizenship. Each of those towns also provides documentation for residents applying for naturalization to show they were voting legally.

Mavodones and Thibodeau were also frustrated committee work had not been done on the question before the hearing date was set at the July 16 council meeting.

“The very work a committee should have done from the beginning of the council year to now was not done,” Thibodeau said. “I think we did not do our best to move that forward this year.”

A similar referendum was defeated in 2010 with 52 percent of voters opposed.

By a vote of 8-1, with Councilor Kim Cook opposed, the council did approve the referendum question requiring all municipal candidates to file campaign finance reports 42 days before the general election.

Cook said her opposition was based on a desire to have the deadline become a state law. While political action committees are now required to file quarterly reports detailing financial activity from July 1 through Sept. 30, the state allows municipalities to set their own rules for individual campaigns.

Last month, Councilor Belinda Ray said she was sponsoring the referendum question because more transparency was needed in city elections, though she understood smaller towns might not require the same level of reporting.

“I don’t think we have a huge problem right now with the money that is in campaigns,” Ray said Monday, but national and state trends made her feel it is time to get the requirement into the city charter.

Strimling agreed, and said he would consider expanding requirements to monthly reporting or looking for a method to provide clean elections funding that local candidates cannot receive now. 

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

Councilor Pious Ali said Monday he did not have the council support to set a Nov. 6 referendum on voting rights for noncitizens and looks forward to working on the bill in a council committee.

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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.