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Portland Charter Commission endorses local voting rights for noncitizen residents

Willis Ryder-Arnold
Maine Public
The proposal would allow all Portland residents to vote in municipal elections, regardless of immigration status.

Portland’s Charter Commission Wednesday night advanced a proposal that would allow noncitizen residents to vote in municipal elections. While the group was largely in agreement that immigration status shouldn’t prevent someone from voting, the group's legal advisor expressed doubts about the city’s ability to extend voting rights in this way.

The Commission voted 10 to 2 in support of the universal resident voting proposal. The measure now heads to the commission’s legal advisors to draft the official language, and will ultimately be put to voters as a ballot question.

Speaking before the meeting, commissioner Pat Washburn, who wrote the proposal, said all residents deserve a voice in local politics, regardless of immigration status.

"I think it's a matter of justice," Washburn said. "We have a substantial population of people who live here, who are part of our community, who send their kids to our schools, who rely on city services, and don't have a voice in what the city chooses to do or not do."  

At the meeting, commissioner Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef agreed, citing her own experience as someone who came to Portland as an immigrant.

"I really feel like that's a great step for our immigrant community, to show that we are definitely supporting them," Sheikh-Yousef said.

As acknowledged in the proposal, immigrants who are not US citizens can face severe legal consequences for mistakenly voting in state or federal elections.

Commissioner Dory Waxman, who voted against the measure, said she was concerned about those risks.

"I am terrified of the unintended consequences of this. Because with the immigration laws the way they are in the United States right now, it’s open season," Waxman said.

Others, including commissioner Catherine Buxton, who ultimately voted in favor, noted that the legal standing for universal resident voting in Maine is questionable, and the city could well find itself defending the measure in court.

"And I think the question before us is," Buxton said, "is it worth the legal challenge?"

Maine state law requires residents to be U.S. citizens in order to cast ballots in municipal elections. Attorney Jim Katsiaficas, the commission’s legal advisor, said the question is whether local governments can overrule state law based on their home rule authority.

While Katsiaficas said this question has yet to be definitively resolved in court, he took a dim view of the measure’s legality.

"The better argument here - not final by any court in state, but the better argument on that statute - is that you don't have the authority to do this," Katsiaficas told the commission.

Katsiaficas said when the last charter commission considered a similar question ten years ago, the legal counsel at the time said the odds of it losing a court challenge were about 60-40.

But commission chair Michael Kebede said the threat of a lawsuit shouldn’t discourage the group.

"And that's because courts exist to adjudicate precisely these disputes," Kebede said. "And if we get judicial opinions about anything, it should be something as important as this."

The commission will have to vote on the measure again after attorney Katsiaficas drafts the precise language that will be submitted to the city council along with the group’s other recommendations.

Those recommendations will then be presented to voters as ballot questions.

About fifteen municipalities around the country have adopted similar provisions.