By Clarke Canfield, AP
PORTLAND, Maine–Like his neighbors, Claude Rwaganje pays taxes on his income and taxes on his cars. His children have gone to Portland’s public schools. He’s interested in the workings of Maine’s largest city, which he has called home for 13 years. There’s one vital difference, though: Rwaganje isn’t a U.S. citizen and isn’t allowed to vote on those taxes or on school issues. That may soon change. Portland residents will vote Nov. 2 on a proposal to give legal residents who are not U.S. citizens the right to vote in local elections, joining places like San Francisco and Chicago that have already loosened the rules or are considering it. Noncitizens hold down jobs, pay taxes, own businesses, volunteer in the community and serve in the military, and it’s only fair they be allowed to vote, Rwaganje said. “We have immigrants who are playing key roles in different issues of this country, but they don’t get the right to vote,” said Rwaganje, 40, who moved to the U.S. because of political strife in his native Congo and runs a nonprofit that offers financial advice to immigrants. Opponents of the measure say immigrants already have an avenue to cast ballots — by becoming citizens. Allowing noncitizens to vote dilutes the meaning of citizenship, they say, adding that it could lead to fraud and unfairly sway elections. “My primary objection is I don’t think it is right, I don’t think it is just, I don’t think it is fair,” Portland resident Barbara Campbell Harvey said. Historically, 40 states allowed noncitizens to vote going back to 1776, but an anti-immigrant backlash in the late 1800s and early 1900s resulted in laws that eliminated their voting rights by 1926, Hayduk said. “We look back in history and we say that was a bad thing that we didn’t allow African-Americans to vote, or we didn’t allow half the population, women, to vote, or we didn’t allow younger people to vote,” he said.
“We’ve modified our election laws to become more inclusive to incorporate more members of society,” Hayduk added. The Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington, D.C., group that advocates tougher immigration enforcement, says voting is a privilege and should be limited to citizens. “People who are legal immigrants to the United States after a five-year waiting period can become citizens and become enfranchised,” spokesman Ira Mehlman said.
“But until then, being here as a legal immigrant is a conditional agreement, sort of like a trial period. You have to demonstrate you are the type of person we would want to have as a citizen, then you can become a citizen and vote.”