MONTPELIER — A charter change request to allow non-citizen voting in the Capital City has won House approval.
Members voted 95-46 on Thursday to approve the request. On Friday, the House again approved the final reading, by a voice vote, and forwarded it to the Senate Government Operations Committee for consideration.
The request followed the overwhelming support of Montpelier voters by a two-to-one majority, 2,857-1,488, in the November elections.
It then fell to the House Government Operations Committee to consider the request after Rep. Mary Hooper, D-Montpelier, introduced H.207 with co-sponsor Rep. Warren Kitzmiller, D-Montpelier, the ranking member of the committee. The committee voted along party lines to approve the request, 11-3.
Kitzmiller said there were some concerns raised in the House about whether legal residents should simply become citizens versus having the right to vote as non-citizens.
On Friday, there was also another suggestion by Rep. Butch Shaw, R-Florence, that non-citizens be required to take the citizen’s oath before being allowed to vote.
“I support it because the small number of people who would benefit from this are good members of our community,” Kitzmiller said. “By and large, they’re spouses of a U.S. citizen, they’ve lived here for a longer period of time, they own their house, they pay taxes, they have jobs, they pay income taxes and they’re a citizen in many, many ways and they’re a valuable part of our community.”
“I agree with the citizens who are interested in making Montpelier, a welcoming, engaging community,” Hooper said. “I think it’s an important part of our civic life to offer this to people who have chosen to make their homes in our community.”
Attempts to allow non-citizen voting in Vermont failed in Winooski last November and in Burlington in 2015. If approved, Montpelier would be the first municipality in the state to allow non-citizen voting.
There are other municipalities in the country that have successfully implemented non-citizen voting, such as Takoma Park in Maryland, dating back to 1992.
The issue of non-citizen voting has raised questions about separate or modified ballots and related costs, and the security of voter rolls, which are public documents. There was concern among House Government Operations Committee members that non-citizens might be exposed to the scrutiny of immigration officials who have detained non-citizen legal residents in the U.S. while seeking undocumented immigrants.
On the question of legality, the committee was told by legal counsel that the issue was a matter of policy rather than a constitutional question that had to be decided by the Legislature.
City Clerk John Odum said the issue was first raised when some residents said they would like to vote in municipal elections because they live, work and pay taxes in Montpelier, and would like to weigh in on issues important to them.
While supported by the City Council, Odum encouraged charter change proponents to petition voters in the November elections to demonstrate there was strong support in the community for it.
Odum, who has testified before the committee, noted non-citizens would be barred from voting on the Montpelier-Roxbury Public Schools’ budget because it is a unified school district.
If approved by the Senate Government Operations Committee and the Senate, non-citizens could only vote for the municipal budget, mayor, city council candidates and other municipal issues, Odum said.
When asked about the charter change proposal on Thursday, Gov. Phil Scott said he was not sure how non-citizen voting would work in Montpelier, according to media reports.
Odum said he’s requested a meeting with the governor to “hopefully assuage those concerns.”
Mayor Anne Watson said she was looking forward to the debate in the Senate on the charter change request.
“I think it would be pretty hard to suss out who the non-citizens were,” Watson said, referring to concerns over voter privacy. “The other answer there is that this is a voluntary process, we’re not making anyone sign up for it and this is an option if people want to opt into it.”
Watson said there was also a question about whether non-citizens would be obligated to serve on juries. She said the question was stopped on a point of order because it was not relevant to whether they should be able to vote.
“There were a lot of people who said that voting should be the right of a citizen, period, and that should motivate people to become citizens, and if they come from other citizenship, then they should be forced to make a choice if they want to participate in our elections. That was raised a number of times,” Watson said.