As the city clerk in the capital of one of the nation’s most liberal states, John Odum had been asked the question dozens of times: Why can’t non-citizens vote in elections? After all, they own land and pay taxes.
“I always acted like it was a strange question,” Odum, the city clerk in Montpelier, Vermont, told CNN.
But after doing some research Odum determined it’s not such “a crazy question” after all.
Odum discovered that noncitizens voted in American elections for more than 150 years, from around the time of the American Revolution up until after World War I. And even today noncitizens are voting in some local elections in a handful of US cities and towns.
So later in the month, Odum plans to hold a public hearing to gauge just how much interest is out there to allow noncitizens to vote in Montpelier’s local elections. And if the interest is there, Odum said the community would have to plot a way forward to make such an idea a reality.
It would be “just a conversation among citizens of Montpelier,” he said. “We would have to make the argument that it’s the kind decision that our community could make.”
Proposal would face many roadblocks
Odum said Vermont’s state constitution doesn’t explicitly bar noncitizens from voting in local elections. But the city’s charter would need to be changed, via a special election, to allow it in Montpelier. And then state lawmakers in Vermont would have to give it their OK.
A measure allowing noncitizens to vote in local elections could pass in liberal Montpelier, predicts Odum, who said he’s received very little pushback since word of this proposal got out.
“Nothing from inside of Montpelier,” he said. “And just a smidgen from outside the city.”
But he’s not so sure state lawmakers would go for it.
And the president of a conservative Vermont think tank doesn’t like the idea either. Rob Roper says noncitizens shouldn’t be considered permanent residents or legal voters.
“The question we have is do we want people who are not living in those communities as permanent, primary residents influencing the outcome of elections for people who do live there as permanent, primary residents,” Roper told CNN affiliate WCAX.
Odum doesn’t think that if Montpelier allowed noncitizens to vote that a horde of people from nearby Canada would flood the city to vote in its local elections. He doesn’t think the change would affect that many people at all.
“We’re talking a very small amount. Maybe a dozen, maybe not even that. It’s more about responding to those few people that are already here,” he said.
An idea old as America itself
Some say the idea is un-American, but actually noncitizens voting in elections goes back to the founding of the United States, according to research from Jamie Raskin, who’s taught constitutional law at American University’s Washington College of Law for more than two decades. Raskin, a Democrat, is also a US congressman, representing Maryland’s 8th congressional district.
After the American Revolution non-US citizens were allowed to vote in a number of states, Raskin writes, and by the 19th century noncitizens in at least 22 US states or territories were voting in local, state and federal elections.
But a flood of immigrants to America at the start of the 20th century fueled a rise of anti-immigrant sentiment. And by 1926, all states had abolished the practice. Noncitizens have been barred by law from voting in federal elections since 1996.
Noncitizens are allowed to vote in some local elections in Chicago, San Francisco and a few communities in Maryland.