Like his neighbors, Claude Rwaganje pays taxes on his income and taxes on his cars. His children have gone to Portland’s public schools. He’s interested in the workings of Maine’s largest city, which he has called home for 13 years.There’s one vital difference, though: Rwaganje isn’t a U.S. citizen and isn’t allowed to vote on those taxes or on school issues. That may soon change.
Portland residents will vote Nov. 2 on a proposal to give legal residents who are not U.S. citizens the right to vote in local elections, joining places like San Francisco and Chicago that have already loosened the rules or are considering it.
Noncitizens hold down jobs, pay taxes, own businesses, volunteer in the community and serve in the military, and it’s only fair they be allowed to vote, Rwaganje said.
“We have immigrants who are playing key roles in different issues of this country, but they don’t get the right to vote,” said Rwaganje, 40, who moved to the U.S. because of political strife in his native Congo and runs a nonprofit that offers financial advice to immigrants.
Opponents of the measure say immigrants already have an avenue to cast ballots — by becoming citizens. Allowing noncitizens to vote dilutes the meaning of citizenship, they say, adding that it could lead to fraud and unfairly sway elections.
“My primary objection is I don’t think it is right, I don’t think it is just, I don’t think it is fair,” Portland resident Barbara Campbell Harvey said.
In San Francisco, a ballot question Nov. 2 will ask voters whether they want to allow noncitizens to vote in school board elections if they are the parents, legal guardians or caregivers of children in the school system.
Noncitizens are allowed to vote in school board elections in Chicago and in municipal elections in half a dozen towns in Maryland, said Ron Hayduk, a professor at the City University of New York and author of “Democracy for All: Restoring Immigrant Voting Rights in the United States.”
New York City allowed noncitizens to vote in community school board elections until 2003, when the school board system was reorganized, and several municipalities in Massachusetts have approved allowing it but don’t yet have the required approval from the Legislature, he said.
The Maine ballot questions asks whether legal immigrants who are city residents but not U.S. citizens should be allowed to vote in municipal elections. If the measure passes, noncitizens would be able to cast ballots in school board, city council and school budget elections, as well as other local issues, but not on federal or statewide matters.
The Maine League of Young Voters, which spearheaded the drive to force the question on the ballot, estimates there are 5,000 to 7,500 immigrants in Portland, roughly half of whom are not U.S. citizens. They come from more than 100 countries, with the two largest groups from Somalia and Latin America.
On a recent day in a small lunchroom at the Al-Amin Halal Market, a group of Somali men ate lunch and talked in their native language. A sign advertised the day’s offerings, including hilib ari (goat), bariis (rice) and baasto (spaghetti).
Abdirizak Daud, 40, moved to Minneapolis 18 years ago before coming to Portland in 2006. He hasn’t been able to find a job. Some of his nine children have attended Portland schools, and he’d like to have a say in who’s looking over the school system and the city, he said.
But between his limited English and the financial demands, Daud hasn’t been able to become a citizen.
“I like the Democrats. I want to vote for Democrats, but I don’t have citizenship,” he said.
To become a citizen, immigrants must be a lawful permanent resident for at least five years, pass tests on English and U.S. history and government, and swear allegiance to the United States.
Supporters of Portland’s ballot measure say the process is cumbersome, time-consuming and costly. The filing fee and fingerprinting costs alone are $675, and many immigrants spend hundreds of dollars more on English and civics classes and for a lawyer to help them through the process.
Allowing noncitizens to vote fits with basic democratic principles, Hayduk said.
Historically, 40 states allowed noncitizens to vote going back to 1776, but an anti-immigrant backlash in the late 1800s and early 1900s resulted in laws that eliminated their voting rights by 1926, Hayduk said.
“We look back in history and we say that was a bad thing that we didn’t allow African-Americans to vote, or we didn’t allow half the population, women, to vote, or we didn’t allow younger people to vote,” he said. “We’ve modified our election laws to become more inclusive to incorporate more members of society.”
The Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington, D.C., group that advocates tougher immigration enforcement, says voting is a privilege and should be limited to citizens.
“People who are legal immigrants to the United States after a five-year waiting period can become citizens and become enfranchised,” spokesman Ira Mehlman said. “But until then, being here as a legal immigrant is a conditional agreement, sort of like a trial period. You have to demonstrate you are the type of person we would want to have as a citizen, then you can become a citizen and vote.”