A City Moves Toward Letting Non-Citizen Residents Vote in Local Elections

Voters in Burlington, Vermont could soon determine whether refugees and permanent residents who aren’t citizens will be allowed to cast their own ballots in local city elections.

Voters in Burlington, Vermont could soon determine whether refugees and permanent residents who aren’t citizens will be allowed to cast their own ballots in local city elections. Gino Santa Maria/Shutterstock

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In Burlington, Vermont, the city council passed a resolution in favor of allowing legal permanent residents and refugees to vote in local elections.

Voters in Burlington, Vermont could soon determine whether refugees and permanent residents who aren’t citizens will be allowed to cast their own ballots in local city elections. 

Councilmember Adam Roof sponsored the resolution passed this week by the city council, saying allowing non-citizen residents to vote is simply a matter of fairness. 

“I’m a pragmatist before party,” said Roof, an independent. “The situation I see is that there’s a thousands of legal residents in my city who participate and pay into our community just as much as anyone else, but can’t vote.”

Roof’s resolution, which passed the 12-member council with two ‘no’ votes, reads that the “City Council believes the right to vote is an integral aspect of membership in any community [and] all those living in Burlington, regardless of citizenship status, are impacted by the decisions made by their local government,” later noting that “disenfranchising members of our community based on their citizenship status stands in opposition to the most deeply held values of the City.” 

The resolution also includes a startling statistic: As of 2014, 3,200 Burlington residents, or 7.5% of the city population, were ineligible to vote in local elections because of their status as refugees. Roof said that figure doesn’t include other legal non-citizens, like permanent residents.

A rally for immigrant rights in Burlington, Vermont, in 2006. Burlington has welcomed 5,000 new Americans in the last 30 years, according to the city's mayor, Miro Weinberger. (AP Photo/Alden Pellett)

“We’re talking school budgets and city council races,” he said. “The people impacted should be able to vote.”

Roof’s resolution doesn’t cover undocumented immigrants, just refugees and other legal permanent residents. 

Now that the resolution has been approved by the full council, it will be sent to the charter change committee and the city attorney for a review. If they send it back to the council, the full group will have to vote again on whether or not to put the issue on the March 2020 ballot, leaving the eventual decision to voters. Burlington voters rejected a similar proposal in 2015, but Roof thinks it will be embraced this time. (The Vermont legislature would also need to act before non-citizens could vote, however.)

If Burlington voters approve it, the move wouldn’t be unprecedented. Non-citizens are not allowed to vote in federal elections for the president or congressional representatives, or in state elections for governors and state legislators—but municipalities have sometimes allowed non-citizens to vote in local races. New York City allowed non-citizens with children in public schools to vote in school board elections until 2002, when the city abolished elected school boards in favor of a mayor-appointed council. In 2016, San Francisco passed a measure allowing non-citizens, including undocumented migrants, to vote in school board elections, but only 49 parents signed up to vote in 2018. Chicago also allows non-citizens to vote in school board elections.

More broadly, the only state that currently allows cities to grant non-citizens the right to vote in all local elections is Maryland, which has a measure in its state constitution recognizing the authority of local governments to set their own rules on voting. Some towns, including Barnesville, have allowed non-citizens to vote since 1918, while other cities, like Hyattsville, College Park, Mount Rainier, and Riverdale Park, have passed measures granting non-citizens voting rights in the past three years, some of which even extended to undocumented immigrants.

More state legislatures have taken up the issue in recent years. Since the early 2000s, lawmakers in Maine, Connecticut, Minnesota, New York, and the District of Columbia, have all introduced bills that would allow non-citizens to vote in municipal elections, but none of these measures passed.

The issue has gotten the most attention in two states—Massachusetts and Vermont. Several municipalities in Massachusetts, including Amherst and Cambridge, have passed legislation empowering non-citizens to vote. But in March, the state’s general assembly voted overwhelmingly against a law change that would have granted those cities the ability to implement their voting expansions.

Similarly, Montpelier, and now Burlington, are waiting for permission from the state legislature. A bill allowing municipalities to set their own rules regarding non-citizen voting passed the state House earlier this year, so Roof is hopeful that the Senate, and eventually the governor, will also sign off on the bill. “We’re a unique state,” he said. “We have people like Bernie Sanders from Burlington, and then we have a Republican governor. So I think we put people before party here, and I think there’s a pragmatic way we can have this conversation.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders votes at the Robert Miller Community and Recreation Center in Burlington, Vermont, in 2016. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

When Boston considered a measure to allow non-citizens to vote in 2018, City Councilor Ed Flynn voiced concerns that echo what most state legislators and city councilors opposed to the concept of non-citizen voting have articulated. “The right to vote is a privilege reserved for U.S. citizens. The right to vote is a unique characteristic and privilege reserved for those individuals who have gone through the extensive citizenship application process,” he said during a public hearing about the bill.

Voting hasn’t always been reserved for just citizens, though. From this country’s founding up until the 1920s, 40 states and territories allowed non-citizens to vote, until state legislatures gradually began removing provisions from their constitutions that let cities enact their own voting rules. Those who support the idea say that their lack of participation in the political process essentially amounts to taxation without representation. In 2014, immigrants in Vermont contributed $18.5 million to Medicare and $67.3 million to Social Security through wage taxes—services that may not even be available to them depending on their citizenship status.  

Burlington City Councilmember Ali Dieng, himself an immigrant from Mauritania, was one of two members who voted against the measure this week. He said that other members of the council lack the understanding he has of the new American community in the city, and have therefore taken a misstep with the proposal. “Working with refugees and immigrants who are becoming citizens has shown me that when it is time to vote, most of them don’t show up, because they think their voices don’t matter,” he said. “It would be more impactful if we concentrate on new Americans and help them realize that their voices, their votes matter.”

Dieng said that new citizens don’t show up because ballot items are often written using jargon, and few polling places offer interpretive services. He said the city should be translating the ballot or providing interpretation in common languages like Somali, Swahili, Burmese, Nepalese, and Arabic, as well as  prioritizing civic education for immigrants. If the city visited community centers to explain how taxes work and the importance of voting, that would create an important bridge, he said. “That’s the way we ensure our democracy is strong and stable,” he said. “We don’t need to use immigrants to make a political point. What they need is to become citizens and be empowered to become equal partners in our democracy.”

Roof said he isn’t focused on making a “political point,” noting his track record of electoral reform efforts. In his time on city council, Roof said he has pushed to extend early voting and expand polling locations, and is now working on an app to explain measures on the ballot, which will be available in multiple languages. 

“There’s historical precedent for encouraging non-citizens to vote,” Roof said. “It’s not like the crazy liberals in Vermont are trying to piss off the right.”

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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