College Park postpones decision to allow non-U.S. citizens to vote in city elections

Monday, August 14, 2017

The City of College Park mayor and council 2016 – 2017. Bottom row from left to right: Councilmember Monroe Dennis, Councilmember Christine Nagle, Councilmember Mary Cook and Councilmember Dustyn Kujawa. Top row from left to right: Councilmember P.J. Brennan, Councilmember Stephanie Stullich, Mayor Patrick Wojahn, Councilmember Fazlul Kabir, and Councilmember Robert Day. Photo courtesy of The City of College Park

BY SANDY LUNDAHL — The College Park City Council voted Tuesday evening to postpone the decision on whether to allow non-U.S. citizens to vote in city elections.

Councilmember Christine Nagle made the motion to postpone the decision to amend the city charter until the next council meeting on Sept. 12. “This will give us time during the work session scheduled for Sept. 5 to discuss how to put the issue to a city-wide referendum,” Nagle said.

The council unanimously approved the postponement.

“I’m 100 percent in agreement with that,” said Denise Mitchell, former Mayor Pro Tem and councilmember from 2009 to 2015. “When there is anything of this magnitude, it should be put before the residents in a referendum.”

There was a visible police presence at the meeting, with at least four officers inside and outside city hall.

“We’re here to keep the peace,” said Capt. Robert Holland, assistant commander of the Prince George’s County Police Department, District 1 Station. Capt. Holland explained that because of the increased media attention in the last two days, they wanted to be at the meeting in case there were large numbers of people attending.

Councilmembers have received threats since introducing the legislation, including a serious personal threat levied at Councilmember Nagle, according to various news reports, but Nagle declined to comment for this story saying by email that she did not want to perpetuate any more discussion about the ugliness that occurred.

Residents attending the meeting expressed support and opposition to the proposed amendment.

Dan Blasberg, who was “on the fence” about the amendment a month ago, said he would now support voting by those who have green cards because they have shown a commitment to becoming citizens.

“We have a large population of transient residents [referring to students and faculty at the University of Maryland],” said Blasberg. “I’m concerned about how often the city would have to redo the [supplemental] voter list and the costs associated with doing that.”

The mayor and city council introduced the proposed amendment at the June 6 work session and held a public hearing on July 11. College Park residents attending the public hearing were equally divided in their support or nonsupport of Charter Amendment 17-CR-02, which would allow non-U.S. citizens to vote in city elections.  

The amendment also authorizes the establishment of a supplemental voter list for non-U.S. citizens, however, details on the registration process and how the list would be maintained were not provided.

The period for written public comment ended Aug. 8, with the vast majority of comments in opposition to the proposed charter amendment.

On letter of support came from organizations in communities that allow noncitizens to vote in local elections.

Hyattsville Area Residents for Progress (HARP) penned a letter with two area groups, Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) and Takoma Park Mobilization, urging the College Park council to support the amendment. HARP, which was formed by a group of Hyattsville residents after Donald Trump became president, says it “works to make our community strong, welcoming, and resilient.”

“Allowing non-U.S. citizen residents the opportunity to vote will ensure that all residents have a stake in their local communities,” the group wrote. “Non-U.S. citizen residents pay taxes, contribute to the local economy, own and rent homes, and make numerous contributions to the fabric of our diverse cities. Like other residents, they want an opportunity to engage in civic life by voting for elected representatives.”

Takoma Park, Md., has allowed noncitizen voting for decades. Hyattsville granted voting rights to non-U.S. citizens in December 2016, followed by Mount Rainier in January.  

Takoma Park, Hyattsville, and Mount Rainer do not ask about immigration status when residents register to vote in city elections.

“We don’t want to be in the position of monitoring immigration status,” Councilmember Nagle said.

College Park would be the largest municipality in Maryland to extend voting rights to non-U.S. citizens if the city council approves the amendment.