By Alice Dubenetsky
Burlington could soon find itself on a path to join a small but growing number of communities in the U.S. that confer voting rights on non-U.S. citizen residents. The initiative would require a change to the city’s charter and must be approved by the state legislature.
Progressive City Councilors Vince Brennan and Emma Mulvaney-Stanak have composed an advisory question for approval by the City Council that asks voters whether the Council should “prepare an amendment to the City Charter allowing the right to vote in any City of School election or ballot question for any non-United States citizen who has been a resident of Vermont for at least two years and who is and has been a resident of the City for at least one year.” If the city council approves the ballot item, the City’s voters will have a chance to weigh in on voting day in March.
Interestingly, given the Burlington Progressive Party’s aspirations to make Burlington a sanctuary city for illegal aliens, the wording does not specify the legality of a resident’s immigration status. There is no mention of requiring proof that they are lawfully present in the United States to begin with.
As absurd as non-citizen suffrage may sound to those unfamiliar with the concept, it has actually been implemented in at least seven (and mounting) municipalities nationwide, with Hartford Connecticut becoming the latest to attempt to grant suffrage to non-U.S. citizens.
Proponents say the initiative simply endeavors to be fair to people who live and work in town, but due to their citizenship status, are not eligible to vote on issues that may directly affect them. They insist that voting would only be allowed at the local level, and that this new category of voters would not legally take part in state and national elections.
Those opposed the proposal, here and elsewhere, point out that it is a disincentive for new immigrants to prepare for naturalization and the path to full citizenship. Why go through all the trouble of preparing for and taking a citizenship examination when they are already enfranchised, at least on the local level? By engaging in the naturalization process and learning about American history and culture, new immigrants are involved in a process whereby they must familiarize themselves with the American culture and community. They are demonstrating a willingness to spend time and effort to become a legal American citizen with the many rights, including that of suffrage, that citizenship conveys.
The U.S. Constitution does not specifically require citizenship as a prerequisite to suffrage, seemingly having left that question to the individual states. There have actually been many instances in America’s past where non-citizens were allowed to vote on local issues and even hold office at the local level, including in Vermont, although it was far from universal and indeed was controversial in many areas. However, in 1828, the Vermont Constitution was amended to make citizenship a requirement for the right to vote. The Vermont Constitution currently reads:
“Every person of the full age of eighteen years who is a citizen of the United States, having resided in this State for the period established by the General Assembly and who is of a quiet and peaceable behavior, and will take the following oath or affirmation [The Freeman’s Oath] shall be entitled to all the privileges of a voter of this state.“
Leaving “of a quiet and peaceable nature” aside for another discussion, it’s pretty clear that the Vermont Constitution requires U.S. citizenship, and that a charter change in Burlington would run directly into a legal challenge vis a vis this provision.