The city council and mayor of College Park are expected to decide Tuesday whether to allow non-citizens to vote in municipal elections, following a heated discussion among residents over the summer about the issue.
The majority of residents who have submitted comments in the Washington suburb, home to the University of Maryland’s flagship campus, support the amendment to allow green-card holders, undocumented immigrants and student-visa holders to vote in local elections, Mayor Patrick Wojahn said. The council postponed the initial vote, which was scheduled for a meeting on Aug. 8, so it could consider whether to hold a referendum to let voters decide.
“My goal is to keep the conversation tomorrow civil and productive,” Wojahn said. “I’m hoping that we won’t have the circus around it that we had last time.”
Prince George’s police were asked to attend the August meeting after council members received harassing calls and emails from people angry about the amendment.
During the meeting, a veteran whose adopted son had recently become a citizen said the amendment “threatens to dilute the meaning of citizenship in our country.” But a junior at U-Md. told the council that she supports the amendment because she wants her friends and professors — who she said have a variety of immigration statuses — to have a voice in the community.
Residents will again be given the opportunity to voice their opinions at the meeting on Tuesday, Wojahn said. He anticipates “strong feelings on both sides.”
Ahead of the August meeting, the majority of College Park residents who wrote to the council opposed expanding voting rights, according to correspondence included in the agenda. But that support has now shifted to favor expanding voting rights, the mayor said.
Putting the issue to a voter referendum in November is still on the table, Wojahn said. Additional possibilities include limiting the right to vote to green-card holders, excluding noncitizens and international students and creating a committee of residents that would spend the next year discussing the issue.
Those options are not acceptable to many activists, including Todd Larsen, who has been knocking on doors in College Park to gather support for the amendment.
“I don’t think civil rights should be voted on in referendums,” said Larsen, co-director at the nonprofit group Green America. “The folks who would benefit don’t have a voice in that vote. They can’t speak up.”
He said limiting the right to vote in local elections to green-card holders would be complicated, as city officials would have to monitor who holds green cards and whether they have been renewed. Creating a committee of residents, he said, “doesn’t make sense” because the amendment, which was introduced by Wojahn and the council June 13, has already been debated for months.
“It would just be a way to kill the charter amendment without saying that you’re killing it,” he said.
About 20 percent of College Park’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.
In Montgomery County, Takoma Park, Barnesville, Garrett Park, Glen Echo, Martin’s Additions and Somerset have also expanded voting rights to noncitizens.
The amendment would allow the city clerk to keep a list of registered voters separate from the one maintained by the Prince George’s County Board of Elections, which must comply with Maryland’s voter qualifications — one of which is U.S. citizenship.
To vote, noncitizens would have to be College Park residents, at least 18 on or before the date of the next city election, and not registered to vote in another jurisdiction. They would not be eligible if they are serving a prison sentence for a felony, are under guardianship for a mental disability and unable to communicate a desire to vote, or if they have been convicted of buying or selling votes.
Larsen said the vote in College Park is especially important given President Trump’s stance on immigration, which Larsen said was an example of “the politics of cruelty and demonizing immigrants.”
“College Park has the opportunity to say we are a city that values inclusiveness and the voices of all our residents.”