Short Relief: Portland shouldn't dilute the right to vote

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Last year, state Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, sponsored LD 1195, an act to allow non-citizen residents to vote in municipal elections. Under the bill a municipality could “provide by ordinance for a person residing within its borders who is not a citizen of the United States to vote in a municipal election.”

Alfond explained that during his campaign he met people who were unable to vote for him because they were not citizens of the United States. He sponsored the bill to be inclusive, to give more people a voice and to give foreigners an incentive to become citizens so that they can vote in national elections as well as in local ones.

A majority of the Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee recommended that the act ought not to pass, and on May 28, 2009, the House and Senate accepted that recommendation.

On July 2, the Portland City Charter Commission held its first public hearing. At least two members of the pubic urged that the commission recommend changing the City Charter to expand voting rights for immigrants. The commission debated non-citizen voting at its Feb. 25 meeting.

Some commissioners were concerned about limiting the vote to U.S. citizens because of how difficult it is to become a citizen. (The requirements include the ability to read, write and speak ordinary English; a basic understanding of the fundamentals of U.S. history and government; good moral character and the willingness to support and defend the United States and the Constitution.) Others were concerned that expanding voting rights might not be legal.

At its March 11 meeting, the commission voted 7-5 against a motion “that non-citizen, legal residents of Portland be allowed to vote in municipal elections.” The minority argued that allowing non-citizens to vote would make for a more representative, inclusive, engaged and democratic city.

The Maine Chapter of the League of Young Voters, which Alfond helped launch, picked up the ball and circulated a petition to get the question on the November ballot. League activists described the effort as “quite simply an issue of taxation without representation,” and the opportunity for Portland to be the “anti-Arizona.”

On Aug. 23, the City Council approved for inclusion on the November ballot the League’s citizen-initiated charter amendment to allow “legal immigrants who are residents of Portland and 18 yeas old or older … to register to vote and vote in municipal elections.”

The city’s corporation counsel opined that the proposal was an “amendment,” not a “revision” requiring Charter Commission review, because it did not alter the “fundamental structure” of the municipal government. He also opined that the amendment was not prohibited by the U.S. Constitution, the Maine Constitution or general laws.

The U.S. Constitution does not expressly require that people be U.S. citizens in order to vote in federal elections. It makes eligibility to vote a matter for the individual states to regulate, subject to certain limitations.

Maine’s Constitution provides that U.S. citizens who are at least 18 years old and reside in Maine may vote for governor, senator and representative in the town where they reside. It does not explicitly address eligibility to vote in municipal elections.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2006-2008 American Community Survey Official Estimates, Portland has a population of nearly 63,600. More than 52,000, or 75.5 percent, are 18 years or older. Nearly 6,200 or 12.5 percent, are foreign-born. The survey does not identify how many of those are naturalized American citizens. (The 2000 data indicated nearly 4,900 foreign-born, of whom more than 3,200, or about 66 percent, were not citizens.)

Generally speaking, you have to belong to an organization in order to vote for its leadership and have a say in how it is run. Criteria for membership vary according to the organization, but generally they bear some relation to the nature and purpose of the organization and they ensure a certain amount of commitment to it. That way both the organization and the member benefit from their association.

America is a big, diverse, contentious country. There are times when it seems that we Americans don’t have a lot in common, that there isn’t much that unites us. We don’t all belong to one ethnic group. We come from different national origins. We don’t all speak the same language. We don’t share the same religion. We don’t have a lot of common history. We have different political views.

What we do share is a special form of government. The elemental feature of that form of government is the vote. It defines who we are as a people and distinguishes us from much of the rest of the world. It enables us to peacefully change our leadership. To have a voice in making the laws that prescribe what our government expects from us and what it provides for us.

It is worth a few requirements, including citizenship.

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Halsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and former chairman of the Republican City Committee.