Non-US citizens one step closer to voting in local elections

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Photo courtesy Caroline Selle.

BY SCOTT GELMAN — Residents of Hyattsville who aren’t United States citizens are now closer to receiving the opportunity to vote in city elections.

The mayor and city council approved a motion enabling the city attorney to draft an amendment that would change the voter qualifications in Hyattsville elections.

Non-citizens would be able to vote in local elections as long they have resided in Hyattsville for at least 14 days, are at least 16 years old, and don’t claim the right to vote anywhere else in the United States, according to the motion. Similarly, noncitizens who are eligible cannot be “under guardianship for mental disability” or, if they are, they must not have “been found by a court to be unable to communicate a desire to vote.”

“Voting provides an opportunity for people who are affected by the government to have the ability to shape that government and the direction in which that government is going,” said Councilmember Joseph Solomon (Ward 5), who helped draft the motion. “Anybody who is impacted by the government should have that ability.”

About 15 percent of Hyattsville residents are immigrants, according to CASA de Maryland data referenced in the motion, an organization that works to “organize, advocate for, and extend opportunities for Latino and immigrant people in Maryland.”

If the amendment is passed, Hyattsville would become the seventh Maryland municipality to give noncitizens the chance to vote in local elections, joining Barnesville, Garrett Park, Glen Echo, Martin’s Additions, Takoma Park, and Somerset.

Maryland ended noncitizen voting rights in 1851 but allowed cities to decide local voting rights, according to the motion.

The city is planning to hold a public hearing in October to receive residents’ feedback with regard to the amendment, which would be put into effect in 2017, according to the motion. However, Councilmember Paula Perry (Ward 4) said she believes the amendment needs to go to referendum.

“I’ve had several phone calls, not just from my ward but from other wards,” Perry said. “[Residents] will not come to a public hearing at all because of the name-calling and reactions that have been shown at the bench, and they don’t want to subject themselves to that.”

The change would also enable the city to administer at least a portion of its own voter roll, according to Solomon. Hyattsville relies on Prince George’s County’s roll, but since the county does not allow noncitizens to vote, the city would be responsible for managing a portion of its own voter roll.

Solomon first considered the idea of noncitizen voting when a resident mentioned it to him during a Ward 5 town hall meeting. During a Ward 4 meeting he attended, though, noncitizens explained they were hesitant to contact city officials or utilize city programs because of their legal status.

“They had a fear that our city was more concerned with their legal status than actually addressing their concern,” Solomon said. “That troubled me in a way. We felt we needed to get something done in terms of empowering a class of citizens in Hyattsville.”

Ward 5 resident Shirley Fisher wondered if residents would have the opportunity to provide input, but Mayor Candace Hollingsworth said the amendment is not intended to go to referendum.

“We weren’t spoken to [about] teen voting, and now this is coming up,” Fisher said. “The change in the voting laws affects Hyattsville until Hyattsville no longer exists.”

Perry said some residents who oppose the amendment believe it would take away the significance of being a citizen, but Solomon is adamant the change is necessary.

“At no point in history did allowing Americans or classes of voters the right to vote diminish the value of anyone else’s vote,” Solomon said. “We want [noncitizens] to participate [in elections].”

The council will host a public hearing on allowing Hyattsville residents who are not U.S. citizens to vote in city elections on Oct. 26, at 8 p.m. at the Municipal Building. Residents are encouraged to share their opinions on these issues at the public hearing. Residents can also submit comments for the record electronically at www.speakuphvl.com/meetings or by emailing cityclerk@hyattsville.org. To participate anonymously, take the survey atwww.speakuphvl.com/surveys.