Politics

Noncitizen voting is on the ballot Nov. 3 in Winooski; could add 600 voters to rolls

Spinner Place in Winooski with the Champlain Mill on the right. Seen from Burlington on Monday, August 12, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

WINOOSKI — Prashant Singh is one of more than 600 Winooski residents who would gain the right to vote if a ballot measure passes Nov. 3.

Singh has lived in Winooski since 2014. His three children attend Winooski’s schools; he and his wife both work in the city. Yet, because he is not legally a U.S. citizen, he cannot vote — not even in local elections.

“I have my family here. I am a resident,” Singh told VTDigger. “And I have no say in any of the school meetings. I cannot vote for the local things that matter to me.”

Last year, Singh joined Winooski’s Charter Commission, which was studying the idea of “all-resident” voting. That policy would allow the city’s residents to vote on municipal matters regardless of their citizenship status — though it would still leave out those who are undocumented. The city had floated the idea in 2018, but ultimately postponed a vote, citing the need for more dialogue.

Singh and his fellow commissioners spent more than a year considering the expansion, and in August recommended the city put the issue on the ballot. 

If the measure passes, it would make Winooski the second in Vermont to approve voting for those without citizenship. But the policy requires a change in the city’s charter, which is subject to approval by the state Legislature.

That could be difficult. Montpelier was the first to approve a similar charter change in 2018, and the measure has since stalled in the Vermont Senate.

“It’s time to let residents decide if this is something they want to see move forward,” Winooski Mayor Kristine Lott told VTDigger. “It’s been in the ether here for a while.”

The town of 7,300 is Vermont’s most diverse; about 18 percent of Winooski residents were born outside the United States. The new all-resident policy would expand by about 11 percent the number of voting constituents.

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In 2018, worries about unintended consequences of the initiative — and stigma against Winooski’s immigrant communities — led to opposition among some. Burlington voted down a measure for all-resident voting in 2015, but has since reconsidered it

Lott said that, over time, the once-fiery controversies around the measure have died down some in Winooski, aided by the commission’s outreach.

But some concerns linger. If Winooski’s charter change were enacted, the city would have to keep a separate voter list for local elections, one that includes both U.S. citizens and new voters without citizenship. When Montpelier’s charter change was brought before the Vermont House, some representatives warned that the data — which would be public — could be used to identify people’s immigration status.

Rep. Mary Hooper, D-Montpelier, called that argument a “red herring” at the time; the list would not include any information on citizenship status, and the new voters would all have legal status, anyway. The House later signed off on Montpelier’s charter change, 95-46, and moved it along to the Senate.

But that second voter list was one reason undocumented people were excluded from the proposed “all-resident” policy, Liz Edsell, chair of Winooski’s Charter Commission, told VTDigger. Some committee members, she said, “were concerned about newly registered voters being targets of ICE.” 

To help address that, Winooski’s charter change would increase protections for voter data. Though the list would still be public record, sharing the data with federal agencies would be prohibited, as would commercial use.

‘I didn’t feel like I was being represented’

Kamal Dahal, a Winooski resident originally from Nepal, says he has seen rising support of the measure among the city’s Nepali community. 

“In the long run, I think it’s going to be beneficial for the city of Winooski” if it passes, he told VTDigger, cementing its reputation as a welcoming city for immigrant residents.

Though he is now a naturalized citizen, Dahal remembers the difficulty of obtaining citizenship, a complex, expensive process, full of chronic bureaucratic delays. At the time, he was living in upstate New York. “I remember not feeling [like I] belonged in that place,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I was being represented.”

Singh concurs. At the moment, voters in Winooski are “not the clear picture” of the city, he said. 

For now, though, the decision is up to those voters. Ballots have been mailed out; the commission is holding public hearings on the policy in the next weeks. If the measure passes, it will head to the Vermont Statehouse — where it will face new challenges.

In 2018, Montpelier became the first Vermont community to approve noncitizen voting. The charter change passed with a two-thirds majority, and gained traction in the Vermont House of Representatives.

But the bill has languished in the Senate since April 2019. It was read once that spring, and has since been kicked to the Government Operations Committee, which did not take any action on it in 2020. To move forward, the bill will have to be reintroduced next year.

Stuck in the Senate

For John Odum, Montpelier’s city clerk, the delay is unacceptable. “The community of Montpelier overwhelmingly voted that it wants to, for purposes of its own governance, consider these people to be full members of the community,” he told VTDigger. “It is just not reasonable” to ignore that, he said. 

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There is longstanding precedent for noncitizen voting. The town of Takoma Park, Maryland, has allowed residents without citizenship to vote for almost 30 years; several other towns in Maryland have enacted similar policies more recently. San Francisco allows all-resident voting in its school board elections.

Before the 20th century, however, voting by noncitizens was far more common. At least 18 states had such laws in the decades following the Civil War; it was not until the 1920s that the practice faded away as a result of rising anti-immigrant sentiment across the nation.

“The precedent is there,” Odum said. “It was the very clear will of the citizens of Montpelier, who are my constituents. And I’m not dropping it.”

Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham — chair of the Senate Government Operations Committee, where the bill has stalled — did not respond to an inquiry Friday on the reasons for the delay.

Odum hopes that, if Winooski’s measure passes, it will increase pressure on the state to give Montpelier’s charter change a second look. 

It still may be a challenge. “Our voters might support this, but to get representation from across the state to support it I think would be challenging,” Lott said. “Winooski is different from a lot of the state.”

For Dahal, though, the measure has already made an impact. “Just the fact that the city of Winooski decided to put that on the ballot, for me and my family, increased [our] respect for the city,” he said. He received his own ballot last weekend, he said, and has already filled it out.

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Katya Schwenk

About Katya

A native Vermonter, Katya is assigned to VTDigger's Burlington Bureau. She is a 2020 graduate of Georgetown University, where she majored in political science with a double minor in creative writing and Arabic. She was a contributing writer for the Indypendent in New York, an assistant editor at the Boston Review and a writer for the Scoop News Group and Morocco World News in Rabat. 

Email: [email protected]

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