AUGUSTA — A Republican lawmaker’s proposal to prevent Portland or other Maine municipalities from allowing non-citizens to vote sparked debate Monday about civic involvement and immigrants’ contributions to communities.

Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, did not mention Portland while presenting his “straightforward” proposal for a constitutional amendment restricting voting rights to U.S. citizens. But it was clear throughout the public hearing on his bill that last year’s debate in Portland over allowing legal non-citizens to cast ballots in city elections was the driving force behind the effort to change Maine’s Constitution.

“This bill adds one sentence to the Constitution of Maine: only a citizen of the United States may vote in a state, county, or municipal or other election,” Faulkingham told members of the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee. “This amendment simply sets in stone what the framers of the Constitution already implied and intended all along.”

While opponents dismissed such historical interpretations, Attorney General Aaron Frey seemed to question the need for a constitutional amendment because he said state law already reserves voting rights for citizens.

“This means that municipalities are not currently able to adopt ordinances to allow non-citizens to vote in municipal elections, as these ordinances would violate the statutes,” Frey wrote in a letter to committee members.

Last year, Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling and Councilor Pious Ali co-sponsored a proposal to allow legally present non-citizens to cast ballots for City Council, school board and other city elections. The Portland City Council voted in August to send the issue to a council committee for additional work after it became clear it lacked the votes and after immigrant advocates warned about unintended ramifications of giving non-citizens the vote.

The proposal by Republican Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham would bar allowing non-citizens to vote in municipal elections. Kennebec Journal/Joe Phelan

The timing of the proposal – amid the national debate over immigration policy and President Trump’s demands for a border wall – made it a hot topic outside of Portland city limits. Even if the Legislature approved Faulkingham’s bill – which would require two-thirds votes in the Democrat-controlled House and Senate – it would still need approval by Maine voters on a statewide ballot to amend the state Constitution.

Waterville Mayor Nick Isgro, who is vice chairman of the Maine Republican Party, said Monday that when cities such as Portland “are determined to promote the destruction of the republic by eroding the essence of citizenship, it becomes clear that action by the state is unavoidable.”

Isgro, who has made headlines for controversial comments in the past, called allowing non-citizens to vote “a reckless and dangerous path” and was among multiple supporters who described it as “a slap in the face” to both natural-born citizens and immigrants who went through the naturalization process.

Such comments prompted a stern response from Strimling.

“First and foremost, let’s understand that the Constitution of the United States did not and does not limit the right to vote to citizens,” Strimling said. “As a matter of fact, for the first 150 years of our country’s history, 40 states allowed immigrants to vote. It was not, of course, until the nativist movement – supported and often led by the Ku Klux Klan – at the turn of the 20th century that we began stopping immigrants from having the right to vote.”

Portland has, for years, been a destination for immigrants fleeing war, persecution and economic strife in their native countries. The city is home to a vibrant community of immigrants in a state whose population consistently ranks among the whitest – and oldest – in the country. Yet the influx of asylum-seeking immigrants from sub-Saharan countries – most of whom arrive in the U.S. legally with visas – in recent years has strained the city’s social service programs and drawn national scrutiny from conservatives amid the polarized debate over immigration.

Strimling said other cities around the country already allow non-citizens to vote in local elections because immigrants are active – and important – members of those communities.

“You can fight for our country, you can pay taxes to our country, your kids can be in schools, you can create jobs and support our economy,” Strimling said. “But what you are discussing today is to say that, ‘No, you are not going to be able to have a basic right of participation in our democracy.'”

But Diana Maples, a Canadian native who became a U.S. citizen in 1965, was among several speakers who saw partisan motivations in those pushing to give non-citizens an opportunity to vote. Maples, of West Gardiner, also questioned why anyone would want to go through the lengthy and expensive naturalization process if they “can have all of the rights and privileges without citizenship.”

“If you care about this country and you want to take part in it, there is a way to do it – the right way,” Maples said. “I’m so tired of people just getting without earning. I really am.”

The committee will vote on Faulkingham’s bill, L.D. 186, at a later date. Lawmakers will likely discuss, at that time, Frey’s letter advising members that Maine law currently specifies that a “person must be a citizen of the United States” to vote in municipal elections.

In 2010, Portland residents rejected a similar proposal during a city-wide referendum. The city’s legal counsel, Gary Wood, advised city officials prior to referendum that “the proposed charter amendment does not contain any provision prohibited by the United States Constitution, the Constitution of Maine or the general laws.” While Wood acknowledged “legal uncertainty” over the issue, he also advised the Charter Commission to consider the merits of the proposal without trying to guess how any legal issues would play out in the future.

Both Strimling and Garrett Corbin of the Maine Municipal Association pointed out that the issue of non-citizens voting has never been tested in court in Maine. Corbin also said the proposed constitutional amendment would violate Maine’s “home rule” authority.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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