Opinion: Portland Charter Commission right to move toward allowing immigrants local vote

The Portland Charter Commission sub-committee on elections just unanimously passed a proposal by Commissioner Pat Washburn to expand voting rights to all Portland residents 18 and over. They did the right thing.

When our country was founded, all you needed to vote in most states was to be white, male, and to own property. Despite the racism, classism, and sexism of those restrictions, there was one group not excluded — residents of America who were not yet citizens.

It didn’t matter how long you had lived here. Those who had been here for generations could vote and run for office, as could those who had just arrived on our shores. Indeed, even our Supreme Court affirmed, 100 years after our founding, that citizenship was not, nor had it ever been, a constitutional criteria in America for picking our electoral winners and losers.

The allowance for newly arrived immigrants to participate in elections continued for almost 150 years. But, as anti-immigrant waves of xenophobia swept our country through the late 1800s and into the early 20th Century, laws allowing those who were building America farm by farm, brick by brick, assembly line by assembly line to fully participate in democracy were wiped out. In fact, Arkansas, in 1926, became the last state to limit voting exclusively to citizens (although they still allowed municipalities to let immigrants vote).

Why did so many states allow immigrants to vote for our first 150 years? Likely for the same reasons that we should allow it now in Portland and in municipalities throughout Maine.

Immigrants pay taxes, like the rest of us. They have kids in schools, like the rest of us. They start businesses. They use services. They spend money. They go to museums, pray in churches, and write online blogs…just like the rest of us. In fact, there is no facet of American life new residents don’t participate in, except, of course, voting.

Fifteen cities in America, in four different states, already allow resident voting. New York City, with a conservative Democratic mayor, expanded voting rights last month. The Vermont legislature recently overrode (with two-thirds!) their Republican governor’s attempted veto of a bill that allowed all Montpelier and Winooski residents to vote. San Francisco passed their expansion before both, but all three states are standing on the shoulders of Maryland, which has ten suburban bedroom communities that have allowed all their residents to vote for 40 years.

The only legitimate fear I have heard around expanding this right is that if someone like Donald Trump becomes president again, his immigration officers might start scouring voting lists to look for immigrants they can harass. That they might try to jail or deport an immigrant who accidentally votes in a federal election (this is illegal, no matter what state you are in).

Certainly that concern is real, and our city clerks should do everything they can to ensure privacy is protected and that no one receives the wrong ballot (something already extremely rare in Maine).

But to allow this argument to stifle the expansion of voting rights fails to understand history. Every voting expansion has endangered groups. Blacks were lynched for practicing their right to vote. Women were jailed for demanding the right. Jewish activists were assassinated by law enforcement for registering Black voters in the south.

In none of these cases would we have taken away the right to vote in order to prevent that violence. Indeed, one of the most effective ways to stop that violence from continuing is to give those who are being oppressed a say in changing the very same laws being used to silence them.

And so it should be for every town and city in Maine.

Photo: Portland City Hall. | Beacon

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