Takoma Park stands by non-U.S. citizen voting law

March 14, 2012

A state delegate last week challenged Takoma Park’s non-U.S. citizen voting law, 20 years after the city enacted the policy that allows all noncitizens who live in Takoma Park to vote in city elections.

Del. Patrick L. McDonough (R-Baltimore County) of Middle River targeted Takoma Park after proposing legislation that would prohibit noncitizens from voting in municipal elections anywhere in the state. Five other municipalities, all in Montgomery County — Barnesville, Garrett Park, Glen Echo, Martin’s Additions and Somerset — allow noncitizens to vote, according to the Maryland Municipal League.

“If Osama bin Laden was alive today and he moved to Takoma Park, he could register to vote and hold office,” said McDonough, known for his opposition to illegal immigration. “That’s how ridiculous the system is.”

But Takoma Park Mayor Bruce Williams and others with key roles in the creation of the law, enacted on March 31, 1992, said it makes sense for people who have green cards, those who are working toward U.S. citizenship or in the country for diplomatic purposes, to be allowed to participate in local politics.

The city strongly opposed McDonough’s bill in written testimony to the Ways and Means Committee, which had a hearing on Dec. 7.

McDonough told the committee he doesn’t think legal immigrants should be allowed to vote, either. He said municipal election law should be consistent with federal and state regulations.

“A foreigner might have a different foreign policy interest, but when you are talking about choosing a mayor or a city council member, your interests are equal to your neighbor,” said George L. Leventhal (D-At Large), a Montgomery County Council member from Takoma Park who co-chaired the Share the Vote campaign in 1991 with state Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery). “If you own a home, if you want your garbage picked up or your street paved, that really doesn’t address the issue of national citizenship.”

The Share the Vote campaign pressed Takoma Park citizens to vote yes on a nonbinding referendum on the proposal.

Raskin, a law professor at American University, began researching the history and constitutionality of noncitizen suffrage in 1990, when he, Leventhal and other members of the Takoma Park redistricting task force found there were almost double the amount of eligible voters in some of the city’s wards compared with its Ward 5, which has a significant immigrant population.

Many states allowed white, male property owners from other countries to vote until the early 1900s, when anti-immigration policies led to a steady decline in immigrant suffrage, Raskin wrote in a paper on the subject. The Maryland constitution requires U.S. citizenship to vote in state elections, but that qualification is not applicable to municipalities other than Baltimore city, according to the Legislative Services report issued last week to the General Assembly.

In November 1991, the referendum passed by 92 votes in Takoma Park. The City Council voted in favor of the resolution in February 1992.

“The basic rationale for it was that lawful noncitizens were en route to becoming citizens, and we wanted to incorporate them in the community,” Raskin said.

A bill similar to McDonough’s proposal received an unfavorable report in the State House committee in March 1992, and Takoma Park has allowed noncitizens to vote ever since. The Ways and Means Committee had not voted on McDonough’s bill as of Monday. McDonough said he expects it will fail but that he is contemplating challenging the law in court.

“Our feeling was that we were legal resident aliens. We paid taxes like everyone else, but we had no voice in anything that went on,” said Anne Norman, who in 1971 moved to Takoma Park from the United Kingdom with her husband. Both lobbied for the law in 1991. They became U.S. citizens two years ago.

“We were effectively disenfranchised,” Norman said. “If the citizens of a particular community have come together and agreed that it’s a good idea, it should be up to that particular community.”

In the 2009 Takoma Park election, the most recent noncitizen voting data available shows 32 of 436 registered non-U.S. citizens voted. There were 433 registered non-U.S. citizens for the 2011 election, in which 1,914 people voted.

“What it certainly has not done is what the xenophobes said it would do, which is to turn Takoma Park into some kind of haven for illegal immigrants,” Leventhal said. “Honestly, I don’t think it’s made any change whatsoever.”

Still, Williams said it’s important Takoma Park preserve the policy.

“We don’t need the state telling us how to run local elections,” Williams said. “This makes it so that all of our residents can participate. They live here. We want them to participate in their community.”

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