When Richard J. Douglas heard this summer that elected leaders of the Maryland suburb of College Park might allow noncitizens to vote in municipal elections, his outrage prompted him to launch his own campaign for City Council.
“I’m not one of those people who hovers over the council, squawking from the sideline,” said Douglas, who ran as a Republican for Maryland’s open Senate seat in 2016. “But when I saw that, I had to get involved. The privilege of voting is reserved for citizens.”
Douglas is one of several candidates who say they were motivated to run after months of heated debate about a charter amendment to allow voting by undocumented immigrants, student visa holders and residents with green cards.
Twenty-one candidates — more than in any race in the past 30 years — are competing Tuesday for mayor and four open council seats in College Park, a D.C. suburb that is home to the University of Maryland’s flagship campus. Municipal elections will also be held Tuesday in several other towns and cities in Maryland and Virginia.
“I have nothing against the foreign-born,” said Douglas, whose wife is a green-card holder from Mexico. “But I believe there are certain bedrock principles we need to observe.”
The council narrowly voted in September to allow noncitizens to vote — realizing only belatedly that such a change needed a supermajority.
Days after the 4-3 vote, with one abstention, Mayor Patrick Wojahn announced — “with considerable embarrassment and regret” — that the controversial measure would have needed at least six votes to pass.
“It was a divisive debate,” said Wojahn, who was elected in 2015, supported the amendment to allow noncitizens to vote and is running for a second two-year term. “It is tabled for now.”
Council member Mary C. Cook, who opposed allowing noncitizens to vote, said she had not planned to seek office again but now is challenging Wojahn in his bid for reelection because her constituents feel so strongly about the voting issue.
“It wasn’t my intention to run for office this term, but I had a number of people ask me to do so,” Cook said. “It has turned into a grass-roots movement spurred by the issue of noncitizen voting.”
Council member Fazlul Kabir, who is a naturalized citizen, said the issue is often the first one constituents ask him about when he campaigns.
“Even though there are so many issues to talk about, this is an issue still on the minds of many people,” said Kabir, who introduced two amendments that would have let voters decide in a referendum and limited voting rights to noncitizens who have green cards. The mayor cast the tiebreaking vote against both amendments.
Beth DeBosky, who has lived in College Park for 14 years, said she decided to run for council because debate surrounding noncitizen voting “awakened the patriot inside of me.” Candidate Daniel C. Blasberg Jr. said the council’s handling of the proposed amendment was not the only reason he is running, but it contributed to his decision and was “a perfect example of [the council’s] lack of communication and transparency.”
Todd Larsen, an activist in the community, said candidates running on the issue of noncitizen voting are “playing to the fears of some residents in the current climate of anti-immigrant backlash and racial tensions.”
“If they are elected, I fear that they would roll back significant progress the city has made in being welcoming to all residents,” Larsen said. He noted that College Park has recently adopted a nondiscrimination policy in its charter, passed a resolution welcoming refugees and hung a Pride Flag outside City Hall.
In Takoma Park — where liberal voting laws allow noncitizens, felons who have served their sentences and 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in local elections — Tuesday will mark the city’s last stand-alone municipal election.
Mayor Kate Stewart, who is running for another term uncontested, said city leaders decided to align city elections with state and federal elections in future years to increase voter turnout, a decision strongly supported by residents. The terms of the council members and mayor elected Tuesday will be three years instead of two, and the two-year terms will resume following the election in November 2020.
“Especially given the national context, it’s important for us to stand up in our values and encourage people to participate in our elections,” Stewart said.
The other towns and cities in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties holding municipal elections Tuesday include Bowie, Gaithersburg, Greenbelt, Laurel, Poolesville and Rockville. In Northern Virginia, there are municipal elections in Falls Church City, Leesburg and Round Hill.