Hyattsville, MD to Consider Non-Citizen Voting in City Elections

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Immigration and concerns about its impact may be a hot topic on the presidential campaign trail, but in Hyattsville, MD city lawmakers are moving to make the city the latest to open up the voting process to non-citizens. Hyattsville Life and Times has more:

At the Jan. 4 Hyattsville City Council meeting, councilmembers discussed a motion that would direct the city attorney to draw up a charter amendment concerning the qualifications of voters in municipal elections. The council is likely to pass the motion, which was submitted jointly by Council President Edouard Haba (Ward 4), Council Vice President Bart Lawrence, and Councilmembers Patrick Paschall (Ward 3) and Joseph Solomon (Ward 5).

The biggest change proposed by this new legislation would allow non-U.S. citizens — even undocumented residents — to vote in municipal elections. According to a city memo, Maryland ended non-citizen voting rights in 1851, but left it up to municipalities to decide local voting rights. Six Maryland cities currently allow non-citizens to vote: Takoma Park, Barnesville, Garrett Park, Glen Echo, Martin’s Additions and Somerset.

The proposal has significant support on the council:

Most councilmembers supported the issue. “I think — just like I thought with 16- and 17-year-olds who are paying taxes and driving on our roads — they should have the right to engage in our city elections,” Paschall said.

Solomon said he thinks extending voting rights in city elections is something wanted and needed. “I think it’s the right thing to do to bring them into the fold, because it’s a part of the city that is clearly present and are eager to participate,” he said.

Lawrence said when he campaigned, he spoke with many resident foreign nationals who could not vote, but he felt they should be able to vote in city elections. “They face a great deal of challenges,” he said. “It seemed to me that lifting just a little bit of the alienation … that it might just create a little better life for those people.”

Haba said, “The key reason of backing this piece of legislation is that we, too, want [the council] to be the expression of the will of the residents.  And not just a handful.”

Support for the measure is not unanimous, though; opponents say non-citizens can participate in city affairs without casting ballots:

Councilmember Paula Perry (Ward 4) — who, along with Councilmember Ruth Ann Frazier (Ward 5), did not support allowing non-citizens to vote — said residents do not have to be citizens to come to the council meetings and voice their concerns. “If they don’t feel that they can come to the council without having the right to vote … that’s a problem from us,” she said.

If the proposal does become law, the city is also looking ahead to potential administration challenges and trying to plan for them:

The council discussed possible technical issues with the city attorney and the Hyattsville Board of Supervisors of Elections. A year ago, the city lowered the voting age to 16, which allowed 15-year-olds to pre-register…

The election board requested a new part-time staff position come with this new legislation, because there are many tasks associated with it, including maintaining the first city-only voter roll for more than 30 years, overseeing same-day voter registration and the specialized skill of verifying residency.

The election board requested the city only accept same-day voter registration on early voting days and not the actual election day, but several councilmembers still wanted to try to make it happen. Phasing in some of the proposed changes over time was put on the table.

This change is not yet final; it needs to come back to the council for more debate and final adoption. Some issues definitely remain; for example, I’m not sure an effort to facilitate voting by undocumented residents will get many takers, given that such individuals aren’t likely to want to draw attention to themselves. Also, the challenge of a dual voter list is one that shouldn’t be underestimated and so the city will want to make sure it has a plan in place. Still, this is a fascinating discussion that is redefining what it means to be a resident of a community and if that is enough to support the right to cast a ballot. These kinds of laws aren’t necessarily sweeping the nation yet but I wouldn’t be surprised to see more jurisdictions with large non-citizen populations begin to have similar discussions in the next few years.

Stay tuned …

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