Council unanimously passes noncitizen voting amendment

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Members of the City Council at the meeting Dec. 5. Photo by Scott Gelman

BY SCOTT GELMAN — After a long series of debates, non-U.S. citizens living in Hyattsville will be able to vote in local elections starting in 2017. The amendment to the Hyattsville Charter passed unanimously, despite previous opposition by some councilmembers. 

The change, which will take effect in May, when one representative from each of the city’s five wards will be up for re-election, enables voters who have lived in Hyattsville for at least 30 days to participate in city elections.

The City Council unanimously passed the amendment Dec. 5, which also allows for same-day voter registration for Hyattsville elections starting in January 2019. Giving noncitizens the right to vote could have a role in Hyattsville becoming a sanctuary city, a city that doesn’t prosecute immigrants just for violating immigration laws, which Councilmember Patrick Paschall (Ward 3) discussed at the Nov. 21 Council meeting.

“I don’t expect a huge influx of noncitizens to vote or cast a ballot,” Paschall said. “I expect it to send a message to the immigrant community that they have a place in the community. Their views are valued by the community.”

About 35 percent of Hyattsville residents were born outside of the U.S., according to 2014 census data, and immigrants compose about 15 percent of the city’s population, according to CASA de Maryland, an organization that works to “organize, advocate for, and extend opportunities for Latino and immigrant people in Maryland.”

Hyattsville is the first city in Prince George’s County to pass noncitizen voting. Six other Maryland cities have passed a noncitizen voting law. Making noncitizens aware of the law change, though, will likely be challenging, Takoma Park Councilmember Fred Schultz said.

Takoma Park, which adopted noncitizen voting policies in 1993, has witnessed a drop-off in turnout since first passing the law. Just more than seven percent of eligible noncitizens voted in November 2013 and more than 13 percent voted in November 2015.

“It’s easy to pass the law,” Schultz said. “It’s a lot bigger task to figure how to really make immigrants aware of the right they now have and then to get them to the polls to do it. It takes a lot of effort.”

Paschall and Councilmember Shani Warner (Ward 2) said they don’t anticipate the new law will result in increased voter presence, and Councilmember Paula Perry (Ward 4) said she expects an increase only if a Hispanic candidate is running.

“In a ward where a Hispanic is running, it’s more than likely there would be an increase,” Perry said. “There would be a lot more absentee ballots if they didn’t come out. I don’t know how many will really come out now that [Donald] Trump got elected.”

Hyattsville lowered its voting age for city elections to 16 last January, but several residents who attended an Oct. 26 public hearing about noncitizen voting “were inaccurately under the assumption that [voting age] was still being discussed,” Paschall said. As a result, the city is emphasizing its communication strategies before the election.

The city will continue to utilize text-messages, emails and social media pages to make residents aware of the law changes, and the changes will also be explained in the city voter guide that is sent to Hyattsville residents before local elections.

Takoma Park uses a comparable system to advertise its noncitizen voting law, creating messages to be distributed on Facebook, Twitter and in the Takoma Park Newsletter. Still, there are language and cultural barriers to consider when determining effective ways to communicate the change, according to Schultz.

“It’s our responsibility to make sure we have voter education as a constant part of the election cycle,” Councilmember Joseph Solomon (Ward 5) said. “We need to ensure that everyone is aware that they can register early, that we have same-day registration and that if you’re not a citizen, you can still participate.”

The issue of noncitizen voting has brought forth passionate responses on both sides. Despite the opportunity to react to the law at the public hearing, Perry said residents who oppose the legislation would have been more satisfied had it gone to referendum. Now that the council passed the law, there is a 50-day waiting period that allows time for a citizen-initiated referendum.

“This is a big deal,” resident David Perry said at the Oct. 26 meeting. “We’re talking about changing the traditional and cultural understanding of what it means to vote. I don’t think one public hearing is enough to get the sense of what the citizens want in this community.”

After the hearing, the council changed the requirement for the amount of time noncitizens need to live in the city. The initial proposal stated voters were required to live in Hyattsville for only 14 days to be eligible, but residents recommended the council extend that period, which it ultimately did.

However, the fact the law change didn’t go to referendum is still troublesome, said Lee Barlow, Councilmember Ruth Ann Frazier’s daughter.

“I have a problem [the council] is making the decision,” Barlow said. “You don’t have that right. You don’t have the right to say ‘You can’t vote on this, we’re going to vote on that.’ They don’t trust the vote will happen. They won’t get the votes.”

Now that the council passed the law change, candidates will be tasked with broadening their campaign strategies, likely forcing them to consider different ways to communicate with newly eligible voters, Solomon said. Still, Paschall said the law wasn’t introduced to influence the outcome of elections.

“The point of this was never to skew our elections or to have a previously unrepresented voice now have the ability to change the outcome of the election,” Paschall said. “It sends a clear message to the community that the city council is supportive of everyone that lives in our community and believes that whether or not you’re a citizen, the types of decisions made at the local level should be decided by residents who live in the city of Hyattsville and not restricted to those who are citizens.”