A Tale of Two Cities, and Non-Citizen Voting

This year, the Vermont legislature is contemplating charter changes in two Vermont cities, Montpelier and Winooski, that would allow non-citizens to vote in local elections. The Montpelier charter change passed the House with little difficulty, 103-39. One expected Winooski, with this precedent set, to sail through as well. But it didn’t. There’s a catch – one that should also inspire some second thoughts about Montpelier as that bill goes to the Senate.

The Vermont Constitution states regarding a voter’s qualifications, “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, shall be entitled to all the privileges of a voter of this state….” (Emphasis added).

This means, or at least is being interpreted to mean, municipal elections are not covered by the citizenship requirement being separate from “state” matters. And here’s the catch: We in Vermont have a state property tax to fund education, in which local decisions in one municipality impact the taxes paid in other municipalities. Ergo, non-citizens are, or should be, constitutionally barred from voting on school budgets.

The city municipality that is Montpelier happens to be part of a larger municipality that is the Montpelier Roxbury School District. Non-citizens voting in the city of Montpelier municipal elections would not get a ballot with school budget matters on it, so no problem. But Winooski the city and the Winooski School District are the same thing, so non-citizens voting in Winooski would get ballots dealing with school board matters – and that appears to be a no-no.

Debate over this technicality on the virtual House floor led several legislators who voted in favor of the Montpelier charter change to express an unwillingness to also vote for the Winooski charter change. The debate also led to discussions of whether or not municipal votes on things like road maintenance that could impact state spending should also be considered in regard to the state constitutional provision. At the end of all this debate the Winooski charter change bill was pulled from the floor and sent to the House Education Committee for further review.

So, here are a couple of observations.

First, the Vermont Constitution is clear that voting is a right of citizenship. That Vermont is a “Dillon Rule” state, meaning the municipalities are a creation of and subject to direction of the state (hence the need for this charter change legislation) one would think that the state constitution would be binding on municipalities. I’m not a lawyer, but this seems obvious to me.

Second, if we grant for the sake of argument that the Constitution would allow non-citizens to vote in municipal elections, it seems arbitrary and unfair that non-citizens living in town/city municipalities that share boundaries with school district municipalities would be barred from voting on local issues, while those who happen to live in town/city municipalities that don’t align directly with their school districts could vote on local issues. This is a can of worms that, quite frankly, should not be opened.

United States citizenship comes with responsibilities, such as the potential for compulsory military service, as well as rights, such as voting. While we welcome legal immigrants to our nation and our state, and encourage them to pursue citizenship through the legal process, the right to vote should remain an incentive to pursue citizenship and a reward for doing so. As my grandmother used to warn, why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?

- Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute

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