October 18, 2018
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Portland progressives hope Trump blowback boosts proposal for noncitizen voting

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Then-Portland councilor-at-large candidate Pious Ali greets voters at the Grace Baptist Church on Summit Street in this 2016 BDN file photo. Along with Mayor Ethan Strimling, Ali is behind a measure that would allow noncitizens to vote in local elections.

Progressive Portland politicians believe a surge of Democratic voter turnout in November will buoy a proposal that locals and state lawmakers previously sunk: allowing some noncitizens to vote in municipal elections.

On Monday, the City Council will decide whether to put on the November ballot a plan to allow noncitizens living here legally to vote in future local races.

The proposed ballot measure is similar to ones in other liberal bastions around the country and was brought forward by Mayor Ethan Strimling and Councilor Pious Ali, both Democrats, at a time when party affiliation tracks a sharp divide over immigration across the country.

The council members argue that extending the franchise is a way to strengthen democracy and give people with a stake in local government a say. They see the Trump administration’s actions and resulting outpouring of progressive attention to immigration as an opportunity to pass a measure that was defeated at the state and local levels in the past decade.

Since before his election, President Donald Trump’s immigration policies and rhetoric have stirred deep controversy, and his discontinued policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the southern border galvanized bipartisan opposition this summer.

“I think this time is the right time,” Ali said. “It’s one of those emotional things.”

But there’s disagreement about whether noncitizens voting is permitted by Maine law. The state’s Republican Party opposes it and the threat of a court challenge looms over the proposal.

“Noncitizen voting in municipal elections is a violation of state law and would also be grounds to challenge the vote,” said Gov. Paul LePage’s press secretary, Julie Rabinowitz.

Opinions differ on this point. But if voters approve a change of the City Charter needed to enact the measure, implementation is expected to face legal and logistical hurdles.

Before setting up a system for noncitizens to vote, the city would likely need to persuade a court that the measure is permissible, or convince lawmakers of both parties and the governor to change state law, something that was rejected in 2009.

The question of legality was also a concern in 2010, when Portlanders voted down a similar measure 52 percent to 48. But this time, the proposal’s proponents say, is different — in part because a vote for the measure can be seen as a rebuke of the president.

Sitting on the steps of City Hall Thursday, Strimling recalled the hundreds of people who crowded into the same space to show support for Maine’s Somali community the day after Trump painted them as a threat during a 2016 campaign speech in Portland.

“It’s clearly a good year for this,” the mayor said. “I think what we’re seeing around the country is energy from folks who want to see progressive change.”

While acknowledging the national context, the measure’s advocates say the facts on the ground have changed too. “This time it comes from the immigrant community,” said Ali, a naturalized citizen who immigrated from Ghana.

In 2010, the Maine League of Young Voters led a push to allow noncitizens to vote in Portland.

Claude Rwaganje, an immigrant from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, supported the measure at the time but didn’t feel much ownership over it, he said.

“What is different in 2010 versus 2018 is that this one is driven by the community itself,” said Rwaganje, executive director of ProsperityME, a financial education group.

Rwaganje became a citizen in 2012 and is backing this year’s effort, which he said will benefit the many Portland students who were born outside the United States. “If I have my kids in public schools, I need to have a say in what the public schools do,” he said.

Twenty percent of students in Portland public schools were born outside of the U.S. and 35 percent of them speak a language other than English at home, according to the school district.

Notwithstanding what he characterized as broad support among immigrants, Ali said that people who might be enfranchised by his proposal have been wary of campaigning for it out of concern over backlash.

There has, so far, been little vocal opposition in Portland. But the state Republican Party, which has previously accused city officials of politicking around immigration issues, decried the proposal.

“If it’s too much to ask for only United States citizens to be able to vote, what’s next?” said Jason Savage, executive director of the Maine GOP. He is not a Portland resident.

Republican opposition was a factor in sinking the 2009 proposal by Sen. Justin Alfond, a Portland Democrat, to allow legal noncitizens to vote in local elections statewide.

Ali and Strimling acknowledge that implementing their plan would come with challenges, but on election day they expect it will be a winner.

Ali was cautious in forecasting how his fellow councilors would vote on Monday. But he responded to a question about whether Portlanders would approve the measure with confidence.

“Absolutely,” he said, “and you can write that I said that with a big smile on my face.”

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