Voters in Burlington recently voted 11-2 to place an amendment to the state constitution on the March ballot. The proposed amendment would allow non-citizens to vote in municipal and school elections, as well as to work as department heads and serve on city boards.
While many citizens are quick to protest that voting is their exclusive right, voting was not always restricted to citizens. In 40 states and territories, non-citizen residents were able to vote in local, state, and some federal elections between 1776 and 1926.
In Burlington, a city ordinance allows non-citizens to serve on seven city boards, but restricts them from service on the other 12, including the School Board and City Council. The Charter Change Committee is currently preparing charter changes to allow non-citizens to serve the city in all capacities. These changes are scheduled to be brought before the full council by December.
In 2012, over half (51 percent) of the immigrant population was female, many of whom arrived in the United States with young children. Maleka Clarke, a single mother from Jamaica, sits on the governor-appointed Building Bright Futures council and is currently the president of the parent-teacher organization at her son’s school. Because Maleka is not yet a citizen of the United States, however, she was unable to vote when the schools’ budgets were in danger.
Many opponents of a non-citizen vote ask why immigrants don’t just become citizens, but that is not always possible. The process of applying for citizenship can take many years to complete, and not everyone is approved. Some immigrants do not qualify for citizenship based on the terms of their visas, and others may not want to give up citizenship of their home country.
Regardless of their official citizenship, many are strong and involved citizens of their local communities and many feel these people deserve representation.
“I believe that people who are residents of an area, who are part of the local community, who contribute to the tax base, who are affected by public policy, in particular on the local level, deserve to have a voice,” City councilor Rachel Siegel told the Burlington Free Press in a recent interview.
While support for the non-citizen voting movement is growing, not everyone in Burlington agrees with the idea.
“You shouldn’t be deluded by what you hear this evening. There are plenty of people out in the community who have strong reservations about this matter,” Councilor Norm Blais warned the Council when they approved the inclusion of the matter on the city’s ballot. Community activist Infinite Culcleasure disagrees, telling Seven Days that allowing non-citizens to vote would capitalize on Burlington residents’ claim about how diverse their community is.
The state constitutional amendment will be voted on in March.