Portland could become among the first communities in the U.S. — and the first in Maine — to allow all non-citizens ages 18 and over to vote in local elections if voters accept a change to the city charter. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Portland could become among the first communities in the U.S. — and the first in Maine — to allow all non-citizens ages 18 and over to vote in local elections, a proposal that would make thousands of new voters eligible.

A proposal that passed Portland’s Charter Commission earlier this month would extend voting rights to the around 3,100 non-citizens in Portland, including undocumented immigrants, according to U.S. Census data released last week. The actual number could be even higher, though, as the Census Bureau has undercounted non-citizens  in past censuses.

Under the proposal, non-citizens in Portland would be able to vote in all municipal elections, including for city council and school board. They would remain prohibited from voting in federal and state elections.

If enacted, the initiative is likely to face a strong legal challenge, especially because state law appears to prohibit non-citizens from voting in municipal elections. Yet, advocates argue a challenge is worth a fight — some say that passage could spur state law change.

Portland residents voted down a similar initiative in 2010, but many believe the charter amendment might fare better in today’s climate. Its proponents include Portland school board chair Emily Figdor, who chaired the board as it endorsed the proposal last November. 

The amendment to Portland’s charter would extend voting rights to more people than a law recently passed in New York City that allows non-citizens who hold legal residency, such as green cards and DACA recipients, to vote.

Around one in 17 Portlanders are non-residents, a rate that is four times higher than the rest of Maine. It is unclear how many are undocumented immigrants.

Nationwide advocates of extending voting rights to non-citizens often argue that the group deserves representation because they play integral roles in their communities, said Ron Hayduk, a professor of political science at San Francisco State University who has written extensively about immigration voting rights.

“People are paying taxes, they’re sending their kids to school,” Hayduk said. “Shouldn’t they also have a say over their tax expenditures and have input into the representation and laws by which they are governed on a daily basis?”

Evidence from other communities that have legalized non-citizen voting have shown that those immigrants have voted in fairly high numbers when given the opportunity, often on par with citizens, Hayduk said. That was true in California and Maryland, as well as in other countries like France, Sweden and Ireland.

“The turnout really varies but can be significant,” Hayduk said. “And can also help determine who wins and loses.”

Hayduk noted that there were deep political divisions over allowing non-citizens to vote, with opponents arguing that it could “dilute” the value of citizenship or reduce the incentives for immigrants to naturalize.

But the practice actually has a long history in the U.S. Forty states allowed it at some point in time before 1926, he said.

“Ironically, the United States had immigrant voting before everyone else,” Hayduk said. “We started it in 1776, when Maine was still part of Massachusetts.”

During the charter commission debate on March 9, commissioner Dory Waxman, who voted against non-citizen voting, said she was fearful of the unintended consequences of the action.

Waxman said she wasn’t worried about Portland getting sued, but rather making sure the amendment doesn’t put city residents in potential legal jeopardy. Commissioner Pat Washburn, who has led the effort on the commission to pass the amendment, acknowledged that many immigration groups in Portland were also afraid of such consequences.

“I would never want to see us do some work that would put a refugee or an asylum seeker at risk in any way, shape or form,” Waxman said.

Hayduk said that is certainly a concern, but there were ways to safeguard voters from accidentally doing something illegal.

In San Francisco, where non-citizen parents of children in the school system were permitted to vote in school board elections in 2016, there are separate voter registration forms for non-citizens, he said. Many of the communities that have passed the laws also don’t hold state and federal elections at the same time as municipal ones, providing a natural firewall.

Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the Portland-based Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, said her organization doesn’t yet have an official stance on the charter amendment but is keeping tabs on the proceedings.

When non-citizen voting went to ballot in 2010, the coalition supported the effort in principle, but was fearful of the legal consequences for undocumented immigrants who accidentally voted in state or federal elections, she said.

A 1996 federal law punishes undocumented immigrants who vote illegally with potential imprisonment or deportation. Then and now, the coalition wanted to make sure that there were measures in place to protect such immigrants from harm, she said.

“There are serious consequences if people mistakenly vote,” Chitam said. “So, that is something I would like to study more and see what is being put in place.”

After passing the charter commission in a 10-2 vote earlier this month, the proposal will next go to commission attorney Jim Katsiaficas who will put it into final charter language. The commission will then vote on it again.

Katsiaficas, who opposes the measure, argued that the matter had not been decided by a definitive Maine Supreme Judicial Court case but that state law likely prohibits such a charter amendment.

“The better argument on that statute is that you don’t have the authority to do this,” Katsiaficas said.

Many of the commissioners acknowledged that the proposal would inevitably bring legal challenges. However, proponents argued that such legal challenges have been necessary in the past for positive changes in the law — commissioner Nasreen Sheikh Yousef noted that hard-fought victories in the Civil Rights Movement came in the courts.

“I feel like that’s a great step for our immigrant community to show that we definitely support them,” Yousef said.