Councilors Hold Hearings to Discuss Voting Rights for Non-Citizens

The Boston City Council’s Committee on Government Operations, chaired by Council Michael Flaherty, held a hearing on July 10 to discuss exploring voting rights for immigrants with legal status and other inclusive practices. Sponsored by Councilor Andrea  J. Campbell, the hearing discussed “inclusive practices that we can make available to immigrants,” Campbell said.

Campbell wanted to be clear that any discussion of this matter would only refer to voting in local elections, not state or federal elections.

With the current political climate, “immigration is an important issue right now,” Campbell said. “We owe [immigrants] an opportunity to have a conversation like this.”

Several other city councilors offered their thoughts on the issue in their opening remarks. Councilor Ed Flynn said that he feels that the right to vote is “a unique characteristic and privilege,” and should only be reserved for people who have gone through the citizenship process. He did, however, say that he has respect for the immigrant communities and “their enormous contributions.”

City Councilor Ayanna Pressley said that since immigrants “contribute to the vibrance of our communities,” they should be able to vote on who represents then at the municipal level. City Councilor Kim Janey said that she’s received a lot of “nasty and negative” input from residents of the city, and she believes that it is “disheartening” that so many people are not willing to consider this idea. Councilor Campbell, on the other hand, said that a lot of the calls she received were in support of the idea.

There were two different panels who spoke at the hearing to discuss the work that is currently being done and the suggestions they have for moving forward. On the first panel was Alejandra St. Guillen, director of immigrant advancement, who said that work that has been done so far includes the creation of a fund for DACA renewals and large scale immigration clinics for current Temporary Protected Status holders.

From the Elections Department, Dion Irish said that the department is currently conducting voter rights workshops in the community as well as working with students to engage them to be volunteers and participants.

So far, no city or town in the Commonwealth has passed legislation that would allow non-citizens to vote. But the city of Takoma Park, Maryland does, and Jessie Carpenter from the Takoma Park City Clerk’s office spoke at the hearing via conference call as part of the second panel to provide information to the Council and answer any questions they had.

Carpenter said that any non-citizens in Takoma park who wish to vote can do so by registering in her office. They must provide identification that tells the city who they are as well as prove that they are residents of Takoma Park. A person wishing to vote in Takoma Park elections have to have been a Takoma Park resident for at least 21 days.

In response to a question about making sure people who are not eligible to vote in state and federal elections do not do so, Carpenter said that the city elections are completely separate from state and federal elections. “I am not aware of anyone violating the rules,” she said.

Many people are also concerned with the fact that allowing non-citizens to vote in local elections would make them not want to go through the process to become a U.S. citizen, but Carpenter said that people in Takoma Park still seek to become citizens.

Carpenter also said that a non-U.S. citizen can run for office in Takoma Park, but it has yet to happen.

Takoma Park is a much smaller city than Boston with less legal residents, but speaking to Carpenter was a way to get the conversation started and hear from a place where this is already implemented.

Various members of the community signed up to testify. One legal resident spoke about her wish to vote in local elections. She said she pays taxes and owns property, and the ability to vote would not prevent her from becoming an American citizen. Rather, it would put her one step closer by allowing her to experience something that’s now reserved only for citizens.

Councilor Flaherty said that this hearing was “a great example of how you can have a respectful conversation about things that are controversial.” The hearing was a place where people’s opinions were listened to and respected, and started a true dialogue about this issue.

Flaherty reminded everyone in attendance that there is currently “no proposed legislature on the table,” and that this hearing was a space for people to discuss their ideas and possible ways that policies can be more inclusive to the entire Boston community.

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