By Tom Brown
This issue of The Bridge focuses on activists and advocates, many of whom are paid by lobbying firms or nonprofit organizations to advance a variety of causes. Here in Montpelier, however, one persistent person can still toss a pebble that ripples into the lives of real people.
That was the case with one city resident, Roberta Garland, who tossed the stone that will, pending legislative approval, give residents of Montpelier who are not U.S. citizens the right to vote in municipal elections by as soon as Town Meeting Day this March.
While the idea of non-citizen voting is not original, and she had plenty of help along the way, it was Garland who initiated the petition that led to a city charter change vote in November that would allow non-U.S. citizens who live in Montpelier the right to vote in city elections, such as for mayor or the municipal budget. Voters approved the ballot item, 2,857–1,488, or 65.7 percent of votes cast in favor. The proposed charter change would not allow non-citizens to vote in state, federal, or school-related elections, the latter due to Roxbury’s membership in the Montpelier school district. It also does not apply to people who are in the U.S. illegally. It’s unclear how many Montpelier residents would be affected by the change, but the number would likely be small.
For Garland and other supporters the issue is one of fairness, she said, explaining that non-citizens contribute to and are part of the community and are welcomed to participate in city life right up until Election Day.
“It’s about fairness and inclusivity and justice for people who are involved in the community,” she said. “It’s about giving people a real sense of belonging rather than saying you can belong until this point but, sorry, you can’t belong here.”
Garland, a neophyte in the ways of municipal governance, contacted City Clerk John Odum, whom she credits with helping to facilitate discussions that led to the question ultimately being put to voters.
Odum said he had been asked before, mostly by residents with foreign-born spouses, about non-citizen voting, and he usually answered that he didn’t think it was possible. But in researching the idea further he found precedent for non-citizen voting in Maryland and other places and became curious whether it might fly in Montpelier. Takoma Park, Maryland, has allowed the practice since 1992, and the law has weathered several challenges.
“I said ‘Let’s talk about it,’” Odum said. “I thought is was a fascinating conversation to have. The vote itself I thought was a real affirmative statement of the values of the city.” He helped to connect Garland with others who had inquired about the issue and soon the petition was launched.
Garland’s interest has a familial origin as well, owing to the fact that her wife, Maike, is a Norwegian citizen and the two lived in that country for a while where she, Roberta, had voting rights under a non-resident visa.
“My wife can’t vote here and through this process I’ve gotten to meet other people who are not U.S. citizens but have lived here a long time and are paying taxes to the city and can’t vote,” she said. “I spoke with one person who said their father would have loved this because he was not a U.S. citizen but he lived in Montpelier for years and years and would have loved to vote and feel 100 percent part of the culture. You feel part of the community until Election Day and then you are excluded, which doesn’t seem right.”
The next step is for the state legislature to approve the non-citizen voting charter change, a process that could be completed in time for Town Meeting Day in March, although that is far from a certainty. Rep. Warren Kitzmiller (D-Montpelier), who is the ranking member of the House Committee on Government Operations, said he expects to introduce a bill that combines both of Montpelier’s charter change requests (the other would give the city council the right to ban some single-use plastic bags) in the early days of the current biennium. His committee is the first stop for bills dealing with changes to city charters.
“It is realistic to think it can be done before town meeting,” Kitzmiller said, putting the odds at about 40 percent. “If we act quickly, before the committee gets buried later in the session, it’s conceivable.”
Kitzmiller said he and fellow Rep. Mary Hooper (D-Montpelier) support both Montpelier charter changes, noting that the committee is “loath to tell towns they can’t have something they already voted on.”
Garland said she learned much from this journey and encountered relatively little resistance to the idea while canvassing for signatures. A few people argued that their ancestors had to earn U.S. citizenship in order to vote and so should our more recent immigrants, but Garland says times have changed.
“Some people cannot become U.S. citizens without giving up their citizenship of birth and for some reason they may not want to cut that tie,” she said. “Some are on a track to citizenship and it can take a long time, depending on your situation. There are a variety of reasons why people aren’t currently citizens but they are in Montpelier at this point and this is their city.”
Should the charter change be approved, the next step might be to approach the school board to extend non-citizen voting rights to those issues as well, Garland said. That would require a similar vote in Roxbury at the very least.
“Implementation will be the bar for success but there is a success here in getting this on the ballot,” Odum said. “All it takes is one person to get it started.”