Non-US citizens likely to vote in city elections soon

January 11, 2015

Photo courtesy Rebecca Bennett.

BY REBECCA BENNETT — At the Jan. 4 Hyattsville City Council meeting, councilmembers discussed a motion that would direct the city attorney to draw up a charter amendment concerning the qualifications of voters in municipal elections. The council is likely to pass the motion, which was submitted jointly by Council President Edouard Haba (Ward 4), Council Vice President Bart Lawrence, and Councilmembers Patrick Paschall (Ward 3) and Joseph Solomon (Ward 5).

The biggest change proposed by this new legislation would allow non-U.S. citizens — even undocumented residents — to vote in municipal elections. According to a city memo, Maryland ended non-citizen voting rights in 1851, but left it up to municipalities to decide local voting rights. Six Maryland cities currently allow non-citizens to vote: Takoma Park, Barnesville, Garrett Park, Glen Echo, Martin’s Additions and Somerset.

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Most councilmembers supported the issue. “I think — just like I thought with 16- and 17-year-olds who are paying taxes and driving on our roads — they should have the right to engage in our city elections,” Paschall said.

Solomon said he thinks extending voting rights in city elections is something wanted and needed. “I think it’s the right thing to do to bring them into the fold, because it’s a part of the city that is clearly present and are eager to participate,” he said.

Lawrence said when he campaigned, he spoke with many resident foreign nationals who could not vote, but he felt they should be able to vote in city elections. “They face a great deal of challenges,” he said. “It seemed to me that lifting just a little bit of the alienation … that it might just create a little better life for those people.”

Haba said, “The key reason of backing this piece of legislation is that we, too, want [the council] to be the expression of the will of the residents.  And not just a handful.”

“I really care about the experiences and the voices of all Hyattsville residents,” Councilmember Shani Warner (Ward 2) said.

Councilmember Robert Croslin (Ward 2) said when considering this issue, the council needed to think about how difficult the process for obtaining citizenship for some people can be.

“I find it disconcerting that those folks — who are as committed to Hyattsville as I am — that they don’t get the right to vote,” Councilmember Kevin Ward (Ward 1) said. “I can’t sit here and say I can’t support them getting the right to vote.”

Councilmember Tom Wright (Ward 3) said he was on the fence about non-citizen voting because of feedback from citizens. “I also understand the concern of those residents … concerned about allowing people who may be just transient effectively create legislation,” he said. “But I also truly believe this is … a way to get the whole population involved and not just portions of it.”

Councilmember Paula Perry (Ward 4) — who, along with Councilmember Ruth Ann Frazier (Ward 5), did not support allowing non-citizens to vote — said residents do not have to be citizens to come to the council meetings and voice their concerns. “If they don’t feel that they can come to the council without having the right to vote … that’s a problem from us,” she said.

The council discussed possible technical issues with the city attorney and the Hyattsville Board of Supervisors of Elections. A year ago, the city lowered the voting age to 16, which allowed 15-year-olds to pre-register. The election board said introducing this legislation could essentially result in some people being registered twice, which would give them two votes.

The election board requested a new part-time staff position come with this new legislation, because there are many tasks associated with it, including maintaining the first city-only voter roll for more than 30 years, overseeing same-day voter registration and the specialized skill of verifying residency.

The election board requested the city only accept same-day voter registration on early voting days and not the actual election day, but several councilmembers still wanted to try to make it happen. Phasing in some of the proposed changes over time was put on the table.

The matter will come back to the council for additional debate.