Roberto Rodriguez, a member of the Portland Board of Public Education, speaks about a proposed citywide referendum on whether to allow noncitizens to vote in local elections during Monday night's meeting of the City Council. Credit: Jake Bleiberg | BDN

The Portland City Council abruptly delayed a decision on whether to send voters a ballot measure to allow some noncitizens to vote in local elections.

After hours of testimony Monday, Councilor Pious Ali said around 10:30 p.m. that he did not have the votes needed send the measure to voters and that he would instead refer it to a committee for study.

The councilors voted unanimously to send the measure to the council’s legislative/nomination committee, disappointing the more than two dozen Portlanders who had urged the council to place the question on the November ballot. It is unclear when the measure might come before the council again.

“I am looking forward to working on the committee with my colleagues to make sure this is done as fast as possible so we can put it on the ballot for the people of Portland,” Ali said. He brought forward the initiative to let noncitizens living legally in the city vote in municipal races along with Mayor Ethan Strimling.

[Portland mayor renews push to give voting rights to noncitizens]

Several councilors noted before the vote that they favored the underlying idea of extending the franchise in local elections, but had worried that rushing it through could put new voters at risk.

Representatives of the Immigration Legal Advocacy Project and ACLU of Maine told the council that their groups support the measure, but that if it’s approved the city will have a responsibility to educate new voters.

“Any non-citizen voting initiative must be designed to protect voters against serious unintended consequences including deportation, prison time and ineligibility for naturalization,” Julia Brown, a lawyer with ILAP, said.

Councilor Belinda Ray said that such warnings “frightened me.” Councilor Nicholas Mavodones said that he thinks more work needs to be done on the proposal and noted that the council “found out about this from the press.”

Before the vote, more than two dozen Portlanders, citizens and not, urged the council to send the measure to voters. They argued that it would strengthen the city by giving people with a stake in local government a say and by making it clear that the city is a welcoming place.

[Portland board endorses plan to give noncitizens voting rights]

“Immigrants deserve a voice at the table and a vote on the issues that affect them, their family and their home,” said Alastair Lawson, who said he holds a green card. “I care about what happens here.”

“It’s going to make it more democratic,” said Jean Baptiste Kayitare, a Portland resident who immigrated from Rwanda and said he is not yet a citizen.

But it is unclear whether noncitizen voting is legal and state Republican leaders have already voiced opposition. If Portland eventually did extend the vote, it would likely need to persuade a court that the measure is permissible under Maine law, or convince lawmakers of both parties and the governor to change it, something that was rejected in 2009.

Although most Portlanders who spoke Monday favored the measure, a handful were opposed.

Joshua Chaisson said he is not “anti-immigrant” but that giving noncitizens the vote would cut against the Constitution and put the city in legal jeopardy.

“We would be in an enormous legal fight should we go forward with this,” he said.

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