Winooski to hold 1st election with all-resident voting

Downtown Winooski on Aug. 12, 2019. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

For the first time, Winooski is allowing all of its residents — including those who are not U.S. citizens — to cast a ballot on or before Town Meeting Day. But residents and officials say there’s still more to do to bring on as many new voters as possible.

The Legislature approved charter changes permitting all-resident voting in Winooski in June after overriding a veto from Gov. Phil Scott. They also approved similar changes to the city charter in Montpelier where non-citizens are now able to vote this year.

Last fall, the national and state branches of the Republican Party filed lawsuits against Winooski and Montpelier over the changes, arguing they violate the Vermont Constitution.

“This is a big opportunity. It’s groundbreaking,” said Irene Kerubo Webster, a candidate for Winooski City Council and case manager at the Association of Africans Living in Vermont, who knows a number of Winooski residents who are not U.S. citizens. 

So far, eight people who are not citizens have registered to vote, according to Winooski City Clerk Jenny Willingham. In total, there are more than 600 non-citizens who are eligible to vote in a city election for the first time this year.

Winooski Mayor Kristine Lott said city officials are expecting more non-citizen residents to register to vote and cast a ballot on Town Meeting Day, though noted turnout for these elections in the city has historically been low — about 25%.

The city has made efforts over the past two months to get election information to these new voters, Lott said, adding that there is “going to have to be a lot more outreach done” to make voting as accessible as possible.

Lott and Webster said non-citizen residents may be hesitant to vote out of concern that doing so could harm their chances of one day becoming a U.S. citizen. 

While the citizenship application does ask if a person has voted before, Lott said, it would not be an issue for Winooski residents to answer “yes” since they are voting — legally — in a municipal election. That’s opposed to voting in a statewide or federal election, she said, which is illegal under current laws.

Webster, who is originally from Kenya, said new Americans and refugees may not know about this distinction or have access to material explaining it in their native language. 

“Right now, there’s a lot of confusion,” she said. “Some of them think that they might get in trouble for voting before they naturalize.”

The city has created pamphlets explaining the process for registering to vote — as well as sample Town Meeting Day ballots — in eight languages other than English: Arabic, Burmese, French, Nepali, Pashto, Somali, Swahili and Vietnamese.

These are among the most commonly spoken languages in Winooski, Lott said. 

On Election Day, voters will be able to access these translated sample ballots in person, as well as speak with an interpreter, Lott said. Interpreters will be able to answer voters’ questions but cannot be with a person when filling out a ballot, she said.

The city also has created videos explaining the voting process in six languages: Arabic, Burmese, French, Nepali, Somali and Swahili.

Webster and other residents have raised concerns that while the city translated much of its voter information into languages other than English, there are no translated, written materials available that delve deeper into the measures on the ballot.

Town Meeting Day articles can be difficult for English speakers to understand, Webster said, and she feels there’s a need for clear explanations in other languages, too. 

“They have to be informed,” she said, “to be able to make a wise decision.”

The city has never put out a packet of information about its ballot articles in the past, Lott said, though officials may consider doing so for future elections. Interpreters were available in person at a presentation of the city and Winooski School District's fiscal year 2023 budgets on Feb. 17, which some residents attended. 

The city also hosted a public forum Feb. 13 with interpreters there to answer residents’ questions about Town Meeting Day and the ballot articles, Lott said. And officials are working with a community organization called the Winooski Parents and Students Project to help get election information out to non-citizens by word of mouth, she said.

Webster also said she’s concerned that while the city is providing sample ballots in the city’s most common languages, the ballots residents use to vote will be only in English. 

Willingham said this is because the ballot tabulator Winooski uses cannot process ballots in other languages. The tabulating company the city works with plans to support additional languages in the future, she said. 

“That's something we will be looking toward, maybe, for our next annual meeting,” Willingham said. “But I can’t really say that right now.”

City officials have proposed a roughly $8.7 million fiscal year 2023 budget with about a 2.9% increase in taxes. The proposed budget for the Winooski School District totals about $21.3 million, and it would result in a nearly 25% increase in spending per student, per officials’ estimates.

Voters also are weighing an up to $1.3 million bond to fund the purchase of a new fire truck as well as other improvements to the city’s fire department.

Webster is one of six candidates vying for a pair of two-year seats on the Winooski City Council. The other candidates are Chad Bushway, Matt Crawford, Darrell Desautels, Aurora Hurd, Thomas Renner and David Xavier Wallace.
The candidates shared their platforms at a televised forum Feb. 14, discussing issues such as access to affordable housing and mitigating the impacts of climate change.

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Shaun Robinson

About Shaun

Shaun Robinson is a Report for America corps member with a special focus on issues of importance to Franklin and Grand Isle counties. He is a journalism graduate of Boston University, with a minor in political science. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Patriot Ledger of Quincy and the Cape Cod Times.

Email: [email protected]

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