Portland’s City Council voted to put off a proposal to give non-citizen residents who are legally present in the United States the right to vote in municipal elections.

After more than two hours of passionate public testimony, City Councilor Pious Ali, who along with Mayor Ethan Strimling brought the proposal forward, said he didn’t have the votes to move it forward. Instead, it was referred to the council’s Legislative Committee for additional work.

The referral came after the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, which supported the concept, raised questions about unintended consequences and privacy concerns. The groups also highlighted the need for robust public education, so non-citizens don’t accidentally vote illegally and urged the council to develop rules to protect separate voter rolls that would need to be maintained.

Strimling said the move will delay putting the question to voters for at least a year.

“I am disappointed,” Strimling said. “I believe passing this is good for our city. I think our city will be stronger when we pass this.”

Councilors were concerned that the proposal was not properly vetted through a committee and instead was announced in a news release. And there’s a lack of information to answer constituent concerns.

“I have concerns when we put things out that are not vetted and the details are not thought-through,” Councilor Nicholas Mavodones said.

Extending voting rights to legally present non-citizens over the age of 18 for municipal elections – such as council and school board races, school budgets and local bond questions – would require an amendment to the city charter, which can be done only through a citywide vote.

If approved by voters, Portland would be on track to become the first community in the state to grant voting rights to non-citizens, though they still would be prohibited from voting in state and federal elections. About a dozen other communities in the U.S. allow non-citizens to vote.

Even with voter approval, the issue likely would end up in court. A spokeswoman for Gov. Paul LePage said such a move by Maine’s largest city would violate state law and a prior city legal opinion predicted it was more likely to fail than succeed in a such a challenge. Others believe state legislation would be needed.

The proposal comes at a time when the debate over immigration is reaching a fevered pitch in the country. Proponents had hoped that the backlash against President Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies would have fueled passage of the proposal in November.

Proponents argue that non-citizen residents should be allowed to vote in local elections, because many work, pay taxes and have children in the school system. But opponents argue that voting is a right that comes with citizenship, which can take years to earn.

Forest Avenue resident Barbara Harvey firmly believes that voting is a right that should be granted only to U.S. citizens.

“My feeling is very strong about this,” she said. “This is my hill to die on.”

But most speakers urged the council to put the question to voters – whether they personally supported it or not. They noted that non-citizens were allowed to vote in the U.S. until the 1920s, when the right was stripped, because of anti-immigrant views.

“We need to right this historical wrong,” said Maria Testa. “The country is watching us. It’s time we step up and show them who we are.”

Martin Sungoyo said he came to the U.S. in 2000, started a business and is now a citizen. But he urged the council to give voters the opportunity to approve non-citizen voting, so his uncle, who is working toward becoming a citizen, can have a say in his daughter’s education.

“He’s just asking you to allow him to participate,” Sungoyo said. “I do believe the city has a right to allow those people to take part in the school decision. It’s not like they’re going to vote for the governor or the senator or the president.”

Residents from surrounding communities even weighed in. Rosemarie De Angelis, a former South Portland city councilor, urged Portland to join forces with Westbrook and South Portland to elevate this issue.

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“This is an opportunity to be a leader on this critical issue,” De Angelis said. “Be a leader, Portland, in the state and the country.”

Two previous Portland-led efforts to extend voting rights have failed. Statewide legislation was defeated in 2009 and the following year a local referendum was voted down by 1,200 votes, 52 percent to 48 percent.

Last week, the Portland Board of Education voted 4-3, with members Holly Seeliger and Jenna Vendil absent, to recommend the council put the charter amendment out to voters.

Attorney General Janet Mills previously has said that the move would not violate the state Constitution, and Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap said that separate voter rolls would need to be maintained for non-citizens. It would be up to the city clerk to establish rules for determining a non-citizen’s legal status.

Gary Wood, a former city attorney, said in a 2009 memo that he could make a home-rule argument for non-citizen voting rights, but he only gave that a 40 percent chance of winning in court. “I think the stronger legal arguments favor a court decision that would declare the right illegal in light of existing state law,” Wood wrote, adding that only a court ruling would resolve the issue.

The council does not plan to ask for an updated legal opinion from the city’s current legal staff unless the measure is put on the ballot and approved by voters, a city spokesperson said. And the city clerk has not yet determined how she would determine a non-citizen’s legal status for election purposes or what additional administrative measures would be needed to maintain separate voter rolls.

Currently, legally present non-citizens are allowed to vote in local elections in 10 cities and townships in Maryland, as well as San Francisco and Chicago, according to a memo Strimling and Ali sent to councilors.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: randybillings

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