On Tuesday’s Town Meeting Day in Vermont, when communities vote on hyper-local issues like their school budgets or whether to buy a new town snowplow, two cities debuted a change in who got to participate.
In Winooski and Montpelier, all adult residents — including people who are not U.S. citizens — were able to vote for the first time on community-specific issues.
"I felt a little bit emotional as I walked into the ballot box," said Jenny Norris, who voted for the first time in Winooski on Tuesday.
Norris is from England, and even though she has lived in the United States for more than a decade, she’s not a U.S. citizen — meaning most elections here are off-limits to her.
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However, because Winooski now allows all adult residents to have their say on only ultra-local decisions like who’s on the city council or school board, Norris could vote on Town Meeting Day.
State and federal elections are not a part of this all-resident voting — just the closest-to-home ones.
Norris’s daughter, Iris, was seated in a stroller being pushed by her mom at the polling place. Iris will start preschool soon, Norris noted.
"Especially since Iris has a disability and we’ll be accessing special education services through the Winooski School District, it feels particularly important to us to have this say," Norris told NECN after voting.
Prashant Singh of Winooski said he pays taxes on multiple properties he owns in the city. The immigrant from India, who has three children in school in Winooski, said he was glad to get to weigh in on city business while he waits on his U.S. citizenship application.
"This is kind of like celebration day for me," Singh said. "Finally, I have a voice in the city."
It was a long journey, however.
As NECN reported in 2020, voters first had to approve charter changes — which did happen, despite disagreements.
"It’s not a gift," opponent Dave Senical argued in the 2020 NECN report. "It’s a right and a privilege."
Next, the cities needed the thumbs-up from the Vermont Legislature and from Gov. Phil Scott, but Scott said no. The Republican explained at the time he wanted to avoid inconsistencies in voting policies from town-to-town.
Then, the Legislature overrode Gov. Scott’s veto — paving the way for Tuesday’s debut of all-resident voting in Winooski and Montpelier.
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Nganwa Wilondja, originally from Congo, said Tuesday that getting to vote in Winooski made him feel more like a member of the community, where five of his children currently attend school.
"We’re proud of that," said Winooski City Clerk Jenny Willingham, who told NECN she registered dozens of first-time voters under this new policy.
The city supplied translations of ballot materials in languages including Swahili, Nepali, and Burmese, Willingham said.
"It just shows we’re a very welcoming community," the city clerk added. "This is our vision — to welcome all of our residents to participate in our election process."
Willingham said she expects more outreach in future years, with hundreds of residents now newly eligible to vote on local matters.
Even though higher-profile votes, like for governor or for members of Congress, are not accessible until people attain U.S. citizenship, it was still a proud day for folks like Jenny Norris.
Norris indicated to NECN she found herself walking a bit taller after casting her first ballot in the place she now calls home.
"I’m very grateful," Norris said, smiling.