John Odum: Legislature should override Montpelier, Winooski vetoes

This commentary is by John Odum, the Montpelier city clerk.

Ever since the Montpelier and Winooski citizens voted to amend their (our) charters to allow non-citizens to vote in city — and only city — elections, I have advocated for its approval by the Legislature. 

Now, the Legislature is preparing to attempt an override of the misguided and ill-considered vetoes of both of these charter changes.

The vetoes were frustrating because, as I’ve written before, they were based on an ignorance of the issue that can only be called willful. Arguments that the proposal has not been considered enough, that there is no uniform process for towns to follow, and that it creates different “classes” of voters are simply wrong, as has been clarified over and over and over again. 

At some point, when people keep squeezing their eyes shut, covering their ears and trying to talk over you rather than engage with honest discussion, it’s time to conclude that something besides reasoned consideration is at play.

All that’s left to conclude is that some legislators (and the governor) feel the need to lord this one over local communities just because it makes them feel squirmy. And, honestly I get it. Change can do that to you. Even if it’s only a “change” that reflects what many other U.S. cities have been doing for years. Even if it’s only a “change” that would only restore things to the way they were in the beginning of our republic. That’s what we’re talking about.

Now, before we get into squirminess, let’s take on the latest arguments of those opponents still scrambling for a reasonable argument against it. 

The first is a really strange one: that the criteria for U.S. citizenship is a long, demanding process. Well, of course it is. But nobody’s trying to pass a charter change to give anybody U.S. citizenship. Yes, you have to be a citizen to vote in federal elections, but nobody’s trying to let noncitizens do that either. It’s not in Montpelier and Winooski’s power to do so, nor is it our business, frankly.

Then there’s the never-ending assertion that these charter changes are unconstitutional, that has been proven time and time and time again to be false. This proposal has been cleared for its constitutionality so much and so often by so many, it’s hard not to wonder why it still continuously gets made with a straight face by those in government who should know better by now. 

Perhaps it’s just that the recent political trend of make-your-own-truth is still in play. But I trust — in Vermont at least ± that we’ll be putting the kibosh on that particular trend. We’re just too good for that.

Think about it for a moment. This wasn’t a problem for anyone when America was young. If those founding fathers who actually wrote the U.S. Constitution voted alongside noncitizens in town elections and had no constitutional issue with it, how can we?

The reason it’s totally constitutional is actually fairly simple. While the state Constitution explicitly states that noncitizens can’t vote in state elections, towns are quite different. Since we are what is called a “Dillon’s Rule” state, towns are entities that are made by the state, could be dissolved by the state, and are ultimately beholden to state government as to how they are allowed to manage their affairs. In short, the towns’ “boss” is state government, and if state government says they can include noncitizen residents in making decisions, then they can include noncitizens in making decisions. And that’s it.

So let’s get back to that squirminess thing.

If there’s no logical or constitutional reason to deny local citizens the right to run their own affairs as they see fit, why does the idea of doing so make some of those in power feel so squirmy?

Rather than trying to read minds and hearts, maybe we can put that squirmy feeling to rest by talking positively about the good things this change will enable.

For one thing, it would mean that all legal residents in Montpelier and Winooski can participate in making their communities stronger and better. These noncitizens would be welcomed as full members of our communities, just like all their neighbors. Just like anyone else in town who may also have kids in the school or pay property taxes.

And seriously, can you imagine how difficult it’s going to be for opponents to tell those people who would be impacted that the state government thinks so little of them as to not allow their communities to include their voices, if that’s actually all they want to do?

Another enormous positive impact — the largest one of all, in fact — is the potential to add a diverse and more honest reflection of our neighborhoods into our decision-making processes. Noncitizens bring in a broader range of voices and are disproportionately people of color. We don’t just want these voices to be heard; we need them to be. Hearing them will make our communities stronger, period. When all is said and done, that’s all Montpelier and Winooski are looking for.

And now that Montpelier and Winooski have put this matter on the table, it’s no longer a question as to whether it’s a good idea. Now the question is whether our state government will actively decide to intentionally and specifically exclude them.

All because it makes some in power feel squirmy.

And squirminess is not a good basis for public policy, let alone a reason to interfere with Montpelier and Winooski citizens’ desire to simply exercise their freedoms.


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