Jenny Koppang is a reporter with Community News Service, a collaboration with the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program.
Winooski stands as the most diverse city in northern New England, a place that has long welcomed new residents of different races and ethnic backgrounds. Yet, many of the city’s residents cannot vote in state or local elections.
An appointed commission is reviewing the city charter to allow all qualified Winooski residents to vote in local elections, regardless of their citizenship status.
“This would give a voice to our neighbors on local matters that would affect them, their families and their lives,” said Liz Edsell, the chairperson of the charter commission.
“I think personally, as a resident of Winooski, I look around at the people that my kids go to school with and at the people who I share streets with, and it’s hard to see that some of us get to make the decisions about how we allocate resources and make decisions and set priorities and some of us don’t,” said Jim Duncan, a city councilor and the liaison to the commission.
In that latter role, Duncan provides information to the commission as needed and makes sure its work aligns with the council’s goals.
One member of the commission has seen the impacts first-hand. Hussein Armuri is a rising senior at Winooski High School and a fairly recent immigrant to the city, arriving almost 5 years ago.
“I love Winooski because I’ve known it as a city where everyone is welcome,” he said. “I want us to be a welcoming city in how we are governed and how we elect people.”
The charter change allowing non-citizens to vote would also need to be approved by the Vermont Legislature.
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The challenges of becoming a citizen are formidable, Amuri said. Currently it takes a minimum of 3 to 5 years, the application is about $725, and lawyers can be very costly. The proposed change would allow more than 10% of Winooski’s residents who are now barred from voting in local elections a chance to participate, he said.
However, to qualify, residents would have to be within a federally sanctioned legal category (such as possessing a green card or a permanent resident visa), be above the age of 18 and have the intention of staying in Winooski.
Hal Colston, the city’s deputy mayor, said the proposal would enhance Winooski’s status as a welcoming city.
“I think that Winooski will be an important example of what it means to be inclusive and to really benefit from the rewards of diversity. When you hear different perspectives and experiences come into the conversation, it can only enrich the conversation, especially for talking about our city, its needs and developments,” Colston said. “If we’re excluding a part of our community, we’re not getting the full truth.”
The idea of granting all residents a right to vote in municipal elections, said Colston, is not new in America.
“For most of the history of this country, non-citizens were allowed to vote. So we’re not doing something out of this world,” said Colston, who also is a member of the Vermont House.
Colston recommended that people consider the issue on a personal level.
“I think people need to imagine what it’s like to be in the shoes of someone who works hard, contributes to the community, who does everything right, but they can’t vote. How would that feel for you if it were the case?” he said.
The proposal has drawn opposition.
“I’ve heard some residents who are very concerned about what this means for the sanctity of voting and due process for obtaining voting rights that they’re used to,” said Duncan, the councilor who also is liaison to the commission. “There are strong opinions in both directions.”
The commission is now in the public education phase of the process, chairperson Edsell said. It will evaluate the feedback, make changes to the proposal and submit a final report to the city council in August.
Changing the city’s charter would have implications for the Winooski school charter as well.
“The main reason why the school board needs representation among the charter commission is because the Winooski school charter is tightly connected to the Winooski charter, so any voting rules that change in one would impact the other,” said Alexander Yin, a member of the Winooski School District Board and its liaison to the charter commission.
If the motion to change the city’s charter passes, it would mean that any resident of Winooski could also run for the school board. “This is important because it makes it a little bit more representative of the populations that are in our schools,” Yin said.
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Tucker Dimasi said he feels strongly about his fellow residents’ right to contribute their voices in the city government.
“It doesn’t make sense that we welcome them here, we’re taking money from the government to support them, and they don’t have a choice in what happens here,” city resident Dimasi said. “It’s not fair.”
Winooski’s charter commission meetings are open to the public and feedback is encouraged. The next meeting is Wednesday at 5:30 p.m.
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