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There goes Portland again.
The Bangor Daily News reported last week that our largest city’s charter commission adopted a proposal to allow non-citizens and undocumented immigrants to vote in municipal elections.
Advocates lay out lots of nice sounding reasons for the policy. Non-citizen residents pay taxes; shouldn’t they have a say in how money is spent? Their kids go to school and they need a voice on the school board. All inevitably true.
But that exact same logic applies to state-level and national elections, too. So should anyone who finds themselves on the “right” side of some political border have the ability to vote in elections impacting that geographic area?
Other proponents take a different tack. “No taxation without representation!” attempts to appeal to lovers of America’s founding story. They miss some of the nuance.
The reason “no taxation without representation” became such a rallying cry was because the colonists believed themselves Englishmen owed their historical legal rights, including a vote in Parliament. They had these rights because they were subjects – citizens – of the British Crown.
A third major argument is that, again, historically, citizenship was not a qualification to vote in the United States. It was included in the Constitution as a prerequisite to hold office, but not to cast a ballot.
Making citizenship the sine qua non of the franchise at the inception of our nation would have created some serious cognitive dissonance in the minds of the Framers. Set aside the horror of slavery; there was no credible argument that women in the United States were anything but citizens. Excluding the vote based on sex — if citizenship is the deciding factor — makes no sense.
As the fledgling nation moved west, frontier states let new arrivals vote. This was a practical approach; they were trying to draw new residents to work the land and build their industry.
Maine has its own immigrant stories. New Sweden is one of the most well recorded. Swedish immigrants built the colony under the auspices of Augusta starting in 1870. They had community elections; they were not yet citizens. And then, in 1876, many of them became naturalized Americans.
This history is informative. At the time, America was a frontier nation seeking new people to help build it into modernity. There needed to be reasons for them to leave the known for the unknown of the United States.
Today, we’ve been the world’s largest economy for essentially all living memory. People from all over the world try to come here and establish a life. The ability to vote in municipal elections is likely a distant thought, if it arises at all.
Which brings us back to Portland. The charter commission has to decide on who will be eligible to vote if their amendments are adopted. They should leave it alone.
The power to vote is the power to change things. Requiring individuals to make a firm commitment to a place in order to participate in possibly changing it makes sense.
Citizenship is a clear, consistent standard to use. It aligns the power granted by the vote with the burdens and responsibilities of citizenship, like jury duty or militia service.
Now, if we can just get citizens to cast their vote wisely…