Maine City Weighs Allowing Noncitizens To Vote

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On Election Day, some people will be allowed to vote even though they are not citizens of the United States. That's because a handful of communities allow noncitizens who are in the country legally to vote in municipal elections. Portland, Maine, could be about to join that short list of communities. The city's citizens will vote on whether to invite noncitizens to join them in the voting booths in future elections.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

With citizenship comes the right to vote, but in a handful of places, even legal noncitizens have limited voting rights. Their ranks may grow come Election Day. That's when San Francisco takes up noncitizen voting in school races. And as Josie Huang of Maine Public Radio reports, Portland, Maine will decide whether legal immigrants can vote in all local elections.

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JOSIE HUANG: Dozens of immigrants walk into the white wooden church in a leafy residential neighborhood. They're from places like the Ivory Coast, Burundi and Rwanda, all part of last decade's robust wave of immigration to one of the country's whitest states. Here, in Maine's largest city, many immigrants work in hospitals and restaurants, open shops. Their kids attend schools where nearly 60 languages are spoken. They set up mosques and churches.

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Unidentified People: (Singing) Be my...

HUANG: But what the majority of them can't do is vote.

Mr. CLAUDE RWAGANJE: Even though I'm not a citizen yet, I'm a legal resident, and I pay taxes like every other citizen.

HUANG: That's Congolese church member Claude Rwaganje. The 40-year-old father of four teaches financial literacy to other immigrants. He's been working for more than a decade towards citizenship and says he's got about two more years to go.

Mr. RWAGANJE: I can't make any decision whatsoever. So I think it's a little bit unfair for me.

HUANG: This sense of unfairness has united immigrants from disparate parts of the world. Rwaganje says he once elected officials who think more, well, like him. Like on contraception in school clinics.

Mr. RWAGANJE: No, I disagree with that.

HUANG: And on schools that he thinks aren't doing enough to help young refugees catch up.

Mr. RWAGANJE: But we don't have anybody who can speak on our behalf and makes all those changes.

Ms. BARBARA HARVEY (Librarian): I want to hear your opinion, but you won't be voting till that hand goes over your heart and you say the Pledge of Allegiance to this flag.

HUANG: Barbara Harvey is a 57-year-old college librarian from Portland. She says immigrants can already voice their opinions at public meetings. But if noncitizen voting passes, an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 immigrants would also get to vote in the city elections. They'd have to be legal immigrants, meaning they're authorized to be in the U.S. permanently and have been typically sponsored by a relative or employer or because they're refugees. But that doesn't cut it for Harvey.

Ms. HARVEY: The premise of voting in this country is that we are all Americans. People who don't have a stake in the American dream could just come in today, register to vote, swing an election and then leave.

HUANG: Portland officials, in the meantime, worry noncitizen voting could face a court challenge. City attorney Gary Wood says while state law suggests that cities can decide who gets to vote within their borders, there's another section of Maine law.

Mr. GARY WOOD (Attorney): In which the state sets the requirements for voting. And included in those requirements is a requirement that someone be a citizen of the United States.

HUANG: But noncitizen voting has a long history in this country. The Immigrant Voting Project says that most states permitted the practice in local, state and national elections until the 1920s, when concerns over the influx of immigrants took hold. Noncitizen voting has made a return in recent decades, where it's allowed in local elections in six Maryland towns and in Chicago's school board races.

In Portland, no one knows how many noncitizens will actually register to vote if the measure passes. But in a smaller city where races have been decided by a handful of ballots, even a little participation could go a long way.

For NPR News, I'm Josie Huang in Portland, Maine.

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