Should people be allowed to vote on city ballot questions, even if they are not U.S. citizens? That provocative question is now up for consideration in the Vermont communities of Winooski and Montpelier.
In Winooski, Lauren Sampson is an attorney, a city planning commissioner, a guardian ad litem, and a library committee member. But there’s one thing she’s not: a city voter.
Because the lawyer is still a Canadian citizen, she can’t cast a ballot on Winooski’s local school budget or in municipal bond votes that affect city taxes.
“It’s frustrating,” Sampson said of her inability to vote on such city ballot measures.
Sampson’s situation could change, though.
This week, the Winooski City Council agreed to ask voters in November whether to change the city charter to allow every resident of the city–even people who are not U.S. citizens–to have a voice in those community-specific issues.
“Just like all residents, our non-citizens are local business owners, work and pay taxes, are homeowners in many cases, and to have an inability to have any say in local decision-making about how their tax dollars are being spent is unjust,” said Eric Covey, a Winooski City Council member who enthusiastically backs the proposal.
“Not being able to vote can you make you feel not quite part of a place that you’re trying to make your home, whereas if you are able to vote—if you feel you really have a stake in a place—that makes you want to put down your roots there. It makes you want to invest in that community,” Sampson told necn.
Non-citizens like Sampson would still be barred from voting in federal and statewide elections, Covey noted.
The issue’s also under consideration in Montpelier, where council support there and a citizen petition drive appear to have enough energy to get the question on the capital city’s November ballot.
If either community approves the change, the Vermont Legislature would ultimately have to sign off on it.
This week’s Winooski’s City Council meeting did expose some hurdles, however.
Nicole Mace, Winooski’s deputy mayor and a member of the council, indicated that she supports the spirit of the charter change, but expressed worry that a vote on it in November may be too soon for a robust community discussion.
“This is a really big issue, that, if we get it wrong, there could be a lot of backlash,” Mace warned at the council meeting Monday.
City resident George Cross agreed with Mace, and spoke at the meeting to add his view that many members of the community are not ready to lend their support to the measure.
“There’s a certain set of privileges and rights that come with citizenship, and voting happens to be one of them,” Cross said.
Covey said he believes there is plenty of time for broad outreach to educate voters ahead of Election Day, and called Winooski an engaged city where he believes people will pay attention to the issues before them.
Covey said Winooski will hold a series of public forums about this question.
It’s worth pointing out that the people most affected by the vote—the non-citizens—will not be able to weigh in on the proposed charter change.