Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Government Reform: Should non-citizens vote?

Published in the Portland Phoenix

We Americans know we don't like taxation without representation in our democracy, but should we allow participation without naturalization? The Portland Charter Commission, tasked with recommending changes big and small to the city's governing document, is discussing just that question, and will likely ask city residents to vote on it in November.

The big question before the commission got going was whether they would seek to create an elected-mayor-with-power position, rather than the ceremonial-figurehead-selected-by-the-councilors position we have now. But, led by Green Independents Ben Chipman and Anna Trevorrow, they've moved past that (answer: yes, and they're also recommending we choose the mayor by instant-runoff voting, a system that will give third parties more clout but may not change the actual electoral outcome) and are on to the question of whether non-citizens should be allowed to vote in Portland's municipal elections.

Before he spoke to the commissioners in a public meeting, Ron Hayduk, a social scientist at the City University of New York, spoke to the Phoenix about what this might mean.

Hayduk reports that in the first part of American history, many places — as many as 40 states and territories — allowed non-citizens to vote. That may sound nice, but those rights came mostly via laws designed to restrict voting rights to property owners, a rule that took years to overturn.

As voting rights expanded, governments hoping to avoid challenges to their existing power (often from poor and immigrant populations who were finding their political voices) introduced other rules, such as poll taxes and literacy tests.

Now a third party finds itself with significant power in Portland, and is moving to open the franchise to non-citizens. Chipman observes that Maine is a leader in encouraging voter participation, allowing same-day voter registration as well as permitting convicted criminals to vote from prison. This would be another way to get more people involved in governing.

"We don't have a problem with too many people voting," he observes. He wants to get people more involved in the community, and to acknowledge the involvement people already have. Chipman observes that an American citizen could move to Portland from Texas the week of the election, know nothing about local issues, and cast a valid ballot — and says it's not fair that people who have lived here for years and been deeply involved in those same issues can't vote at all. "They're stakeholders," he says. (Estimates of Portlanders in this situation range between 4000 and 5000.)

Legal immigrants typically take between eight and 10 years to earn citizenship, if they decide to. "Many of our immigrants are refugees" with legal status, Trevorrow says, who have kids in the public schools and pay property, income, and sales taxes yet at present lack a voice in how that money is spent — at least for the period before they become citizens. Some, for whom renouncing another citizenship would mean loss of property or ability to visit relatives abroad, never become US citizens and never have a voice in how their new home is governed.

It's not without controversy. Apart from the question of whether such a move is legal without action from the state Legislature (a bill to allow just this option to all Maine municipalities failed last session), America's historical cultural wariness toward people from other countries is also at play. (It's ironic, Hayduk notes, in "this nation of immigrants," but "it's an old periodic conflict" in which we must "talk about what divides us" as well as things we have in common.)

And while seven immigrants asked the commissioners to allow it, several commissioners appear wary of letting non-citizens vote, suggesting that if they want to have a voice, they become US citizens. "Immigrants want this to happen," Trevorrow says. But since citizens get to choose whether it does, the real question is whether Americans want this to happen.