Portland voters will decide in November whether non-citizen, legal immigrants should be able to vote in municipal elections. If the measure passes, thousands of immigrants would be able to vote — but not to run for office — on issues like local taxes and schools, as long as they could show proof of identity and legal status.
After a setback in March, when the city's charter commission voted not to suggest amending the charter to allow non-citizen voting (commission members have since said they thought the question was too big for their jurisdiction), the League of Young Voters launched a petition drive to get the referendum question on the November 2 ballot, arguing, among other things, that these legal residents pay taxes and should not lack a voice in how those taxes are spent. They needed 4487 signatures (20 percent of the people who voted in the 2006 gubernatorial election). They collected 2400 on primary day in June, and the remainder on the streets of Portland over the last few months. On the evening of August 10, the signatures were approved.
The League's Maine state director Will Everitt says the Voting Rights Now campaign was successful "for two reasons. The bottom line is when you talk to people about legal residents and how they're our neighbors, and the taxation without representation piece, people just get it. And the other thing is, we had 40 volunteers working on this thing."
Their task now is to reframe the semantics of the debate.
"Arizona has kind of made the word 'immigrant' kind of synonymous with 'illegal,'" Everitt says, referring to the heated immigration-policy debate going on in the Southwest. And he recognizes that the only way to turn that tide is by making face-to-face contact with voters: "If you go in the voting booth without having had a conversation about this, there's a good chance you'll vote no."
Now that the question has qualified, the city council has to approve the measure for the ballot; a hearing to that end will take place on Monday, August 30, at 5 pm in City Hall. It's mostly just a formality, but it could be a great opportunity to see both sides finessing their arguments — that is, if the opposition, which at this point is largely limited to the Portland Press Herald online comment boards, comes out.
: This Just In
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