The Portland City Council voted to delay action on a proposal to allow some non-citizens to vote in local elections after advocates warned that it could backfire on those immigrants by putting them at risk of being targeted by federal immigration agents.

The warnings from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project presented last-minute legal doubts about how a non-citizen voter registry might be used at a time when the Trump administration is tightening immigration enforcement. The groups made it clear they support the extension of voter rights as long as those issues are resolved.

City Councilor Pious Ali said Tuesday that a subcommittee he leads will soon begin work on addressing legal and privacy concerns raised by immigration lawyers about his proposal to allow non-citizens to vote in Portland’s municipal elections.

Along with Mayor Ethan Strimling, Ali had hoped to place a charter amendment on the fall ballot for a citywide vote. But after a two-hour public hearing Monday and before councilors began debating the issue, Ali abruptly declared that he didn’t have the five votes needed to move the proposal forward and suggested postponing the vote.

The proposal was referred to the Legislative Committee. Ali leads that committee and said it will soon begin to work on issues raised by the ACLU of Maine and ILAP. Those concerns included the possibility that personal information contained on voter rolls would fall into the hands of immigration authorities or anti-immigrant political forces, or that non-citizens who go to the polls to vote in local elections under the proposed policy might accidentally vote in state and federal elections, which would remain illegal.

“I don’t want to do anything that will harm any immigrants,” Ali said. “I think for me it’s a best-case situation. It’s a delay, not a loss. So I’m looking forward to working on it and bringing it back.”

IN A TENUOUS SITUATION

The move highlights the precarious position in which many immigrants – including non-citizens who are seeking asylum – find themselves during the Trump administration, which has conducted a major immigration crackdown.

Some of those actions include travel bans on people from some Muslim majority countries, separating children from their families at the southern border and holding them in detention, ending an Obama-era program meant to protect young people brought to the U.S. illegally as children from deportation, and a potential executive action being developed to deny legal status to immigrants who accept public benefits. Citizenship checkpoints, including at a Bangor bus station and along Interstate 95, also have fueled fears in the immigrant community in Maine.

“We’re just seeing unprecedented overreach and over-stepping from the Department of Homeland Security,” said Oamshiri Amarasingham, advocacy director for the ACLU of Maine. “It’s really alarming that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers are routinely now boarding buses asking people for their papers, making traffic stops, and showing up at the courthouse in Portland. It’s unprecedented.”

Portland has led two unsuccessful efforts to extend voting rights to non-citizens – at the state level in 2009 and through a referendum in 2010 that was defeated by 1,200 votes, 52-48 percent. But this is the first time that immigration lawyers have raised the concerns about “serious unintended consequences” of such a policy, “including deportation, prison time and ineligibility for naturalization.”

“That never did come up,” said Anna Trevorrow, who was involved in Portland’s 2010 effort to extend voting rights and is current chair of the Portland Board of Public Education. “My sense is that we’re kind of in a state of heightened awareness of immigration issues right now. So these are being thought about in the context of what’s happening nationally with immigration.”

UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES

While Attorney General Janet Mills has ruled that Portland’s proposal would not violate the Maine Constitution, a spokesperson for Gov. Paul LePage has said the move would violate state law, which requires one to be a citizen to vote.

Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap agreed Tuesday that a state law change would be needed before non-citizens could vote. He also said the city would have to keep a separate voter roll for non-citizen voters to avoid running afoul of federal law.

The ACLU of Maine and ILAP wrote in an Aug. 10 memo to councilors that they support extending voting rights to anyone who lives in Portland, regardless of immigration status, as long as the city took steps to “protect voters from serious unintended consequences, including deportation, prison time and ineligibility for naturalization.”

“We’ve all been seeing under the Trump administration this heightened power and discretion being given to and used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement,” Amarasingham said. “We have always had concerns about the government creating lists and surveilling its citizens, but especially in this moment, under this administration, the consequences are real and scary.”

The groups urged the city to invest resources to properly train election workers, city staff and non-citizens to ensure non-citizens are only voting in elections for which they are eligible, since municipal elections often occur at the same time as state and federal elections. “Consider how easily a newly trained or overworked poll worker could accidentally hand a non-citizen a federal or state ballot,” the memo states.

They also urged the city to create a “robust data privacy system to protect against misuse of non-citizen voter data information by (ICE), lawmakers, or anti-immigrant members of the public.” Voter rolls contain a person’s name, date of birth and address. They are accessible to elected officials, the secretary of state, political parties, and individuals and organizations engaged in get-out-the-vote efforts.

ADVANCING WITH CAUTION

The city should imitate what San Francisco did to ensure that warnings on ballots, polling places and websites are available in multiple languages, the groups said. And it should evaluate the safety and effectiveness of all of these measures.

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The concerns and suggestions were eye-opening for councilors.

“They raised points that frightened me,” Councilor Belinda Ray said Monday night. She supports the idea of extending voting rights, but said, “We had not quite thought through all of the ramifications of what we were taking up and the very serious consequences that could befall people whose names that would be gathered on lists that would be shared in ways they may not have control over.”

Ali said his committee will likely begin to address these concerns “in the next month or so,” with the goal of putting the issue to voters as soon as possible.

“I don’t think it’s going to be this year and I don’t think I will call for a special election,” Ali said. “So it may be June or fall of next year.”

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

[email protected]

Twitter: randybillings

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