The Washington suburb of College Park, Md., on Tuesday became the largest U.S. city to allow noncitizens to cast ballots in municipal elections after a divided City Council vote that reflected the nation's heated and emotional debate over illegal immigration.
Unlike most other states, Maryland allows towns and cities to decide for themselves who can vote in local elections. In recent years, Hyattsville, Mount Rainier, Takoma Park and several smaller towns have extended that privilege to noncitizens. College Park, home to about 32,000 and the University of Maryland's flagship campus, will join them starting in 2019.
The decision to allow undocumented immigrants, student visa holders and residents with green cards to vote comes eight months into a crackdown on illegal immigration by President Trump and one week after his administration said it will wind down a deportation-relief program for young immigrants brought here as children. Council members and activists who supported the measure said it would send a message that College Park is a welcoming community for all residents, regardless of legal status.
"Even if it weren't for the national context, it would be important for us to vote in support of noncitizens voting," said former mayor Andrew Fellows, one of 30 people to speak during the four-hour meeting. "We . . . should experiment in inclusivity wherever we possibly can."
On both sides tension flared, with some in the audience booing speakers and the mayor at one point declaring that there was not a competition to see who could clap the loudest.
"I came here to have a civil discourse, and I was called a Nazi," said Rick Hudson, who opposed allowing noncitizens to vote and said the slur was directed at him while he waited in line to speak. "People are afraid to speak one way or another on this issue."
Emily Weant, who has lived in College Park since 2013, said allowing noncitizens to vote is "a slap in the face to citizens, especially Latino immigrants who have earned their citizenship."
Some council members said they thought that not enough time had been devoted to discussing the charter amendment, which was introduced June 13 and has been passionately debated for much of the summer.
The eight-member council, which postponed its initial vote Aug. 8, deadlocked Tuesday night on two proposed amendments: whether to let city residents help make the decision, either through a ballot referendum or a committee of residents that would discuss the issue; and whether to limit voting rights to noncitizens who have green cards.
Mayor Patrick Wojahn cast the tiebreaking vote against both motions, which were introduced by council member Fazlul Kabir, himself a naturalized citizen.
"Postponing [a vote] at this point will only increase tension, will only increase the fervor," Wojahn said. "To me, expanding access to the right to vote in our city is something that expands our community voice, not something that contracts it."
The measure allowing noncitizens to vote then passed 4 to 3, with Kabir abstaining.
Kabir said he sees "both sides" of the issue and does not believe that residents who oppose expanding voting rights are racist or xenophobic.
"I have been serving them for many years now, and I know they are not that type of people," he said, choking up.
Only a handful of jurisdictions outside Maryland have taken steps to allow noncitizens to vote, according to Ron Hayduk, an associate professor of political science at San Francisco State University and an expert on noncitizen voting laws.
San Francisco voters approved a referendum in November to allow noncitizens with children in public schools to vote in school board elections. Chicago has allowed noncitizens to vote in school board elections since 1989.
In Massachusetts, Amherst, Cambridge, Newton and Brookline have passed laws that would allow legal permanent residents to vote but cannot put them into effect unless the state passes its own legislation.
Despite the passion on both sides, the impact of expanding voting rights to noncitizens has been minimal. In Hyattsville, 33 city-only voters registered for local elections in May — the first since the amendment passed in December — and 12 actually voted, according to a letter signed by several advocacy groups. In Mount Rainier, 20 noncitizens registered to vote.
The College Park city clerk will keep a list of registered voters separate from the one maintained by the Prince George's County Board of Elections for county, state and federal contests.
To vote in city elections, noncitizens must be College Park residents, at least 18 by the date of the next city election and not registered to vote elsewhere. They are ineligible if they are in prison for a felony, unable to communicate a desire to vote or have been convicted of buying or selling votes.
About 20 percent of the city's 32,275 residents are foreign-born, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The University of Maryland campus, with more than 27,000 undergraduates, has about 3,600 international students.
Council members Christine Nagle, Monroe Dennis, Stephanie Stullich and P.J. Brennan voted for the amendment. Council members Mary Cook, Dustyn Kujawa and Robert Day voted against it.