Winooski’s request to allow noncitizen residents to vote in local elections won preliminary approval from the Vermont Senate on Friday.
The bill, H.227, authorizing a change in Winooski’s city charter, passed 20-10. All seven Senate Republicans voted against the measure, as did three Democrats, Sen. Alice Nitka, D-Windsor; Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle; and Sen. Robert Starr, D-Essex-Orleans.
Sen. Kesha Ram, D-Chittenden, in introducing the bill, said Winooski is a city where this kind of change could actually make a big difference. Ten percent of Winooski residents have not attained citizenship. Another 8% are naturalized citizens.
Additionally, 42% of families in the Winooski school district are English language learners, “which may correlate somewhat to people who can’t participate in local school elections,” Ram said.
She also gave a brief history of all-resident voting in the United States. Until the beginning of the 20th century, when anti-immigrant sentiments began to rise, Ram said 22 states formally allowed noncitizen residents to vote. However, by 1926, it was banned in every U.S. state.
Now, she said, that tide is beginning to change as a small stream of municipalities have begun to pass laws to allow all residents to vote in local elections, including Chicago, San Francisco and some communities in Maryland.
In Winooski’s 2020 Town Meeting Day Election, the charter change passed with 70% support. The measure would apply only to people living in Winooski legally, in compliance with federal law.
Sen. Randy Brock, R-Franklin, questioned Ram about the potential “dilution” of citizens’ votes, as a result of an increased number of noncitizen voters.
“The more voters there are in an election, the less the value of an individual vote would be,” Brock said. “A smaller number of voters would mean a person’s vote has more of an impact on the overall result.”
Ram said it’s clear to her that, from the results of Winooski citizens’ own votes on the matter, diluted votes aren’t a big concern.
“We heard from Winooski folks; 70% voted,” Ram said. “They want their fellow residents to be able to share in their decisions. They don’t feel like it dilutes their ability to have an impact in their local elections.”
Earlier this week, the Senate approved a similar measure to amend Montpelier’s charter, 21-9.
Mazza voted yes for Montpelier and no for Winooski. Mazza said that switch had nothing to do with the noncitizen voting portion of the charter change, but instead, it was about a section of the bill that would bar city councilors from holding any other city office. Mazza raised concerns about whether that would apply to volunteer firefighters as well.
“I was concerned about Winooski because of the question about whether volunteers could serve in any position in the city,” he said. “If she clarifies that, it’ll be all right. We have so many good volunteer firefighters. I want to make sure they’re able to serve.”
A final vote on the bill is expected next week.
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