Undocumented immigrants might soon be able to vote in President Donald Trump’s backyard.
While the federal government cracks down on immigration and voter rights, local officials in a suburb of Washington, D.C., debate expanding the right to vote in local elections to noncitizens including undocumented residents.
A proposed amendment to College Park, Maryland’s charter is up for vote by the city council Tuesday. It would permit any resident to vote for mayor or city council as long as they can prove that they live within city limits. The town of 30,000 and home to University of Maryland has a large immigrant community, according to Julio Murillo, a policy analyst at immigration rights group CASA. Roughy one-fifth of the city would gain the right to vote, Murillo said.
“We’re not talking about international affairs. We’re not talking about national security. We’re talking about trash pickup, snow removal,” Murillo, who supports the move, said. “It’s only fair for somebody who’s paying taxes to also have a say in these issues, to have a representative who reflects them and their interests.”
“It’s trying to make our community a place where everybody can participate,” said Councilmember Christine Nagle, who is sponsoring the plan.
Councilmember Mary Cook said that both she and her constituents oppose the bill. Naturalized citizens must take classes and go through a process before they gain citizenship, said Cook.
“To pledge allegiance to this country, that’s really important,” she said. “It’s a special privilege of citizens to be able to vote.”
She argued that immigrants eager to participate in civic life have other options.
“Voting is just a one time thing. There are many ways to get involved in College Park,” Cook said, giving civic associations and the senior committee as two examples.
Cook also called the proposal poorly thought out and part of a trend. Residents of nearby Takoma Park gained voting rights regardless of immigration status in 1991. Last December, Hyattsville passed a similar law followed by Mount Rainer a month later. Ten towns in Maryland allow any resident to vote in local elections.
The United States has a history of allowing noncitizens to vote, going back to the Founding.
“It’s surprising to a lot of people,” said Ron Hayduk, professor of political science at San Francisco State University and author of Democracy for All: Restoring Immigrant Voting Rights in the U.S.
A country founded on the idea of no taxation without representation did not care much about nationality, said Hayduk. Instead, early America based voting rights on race and class. Any white male could vote as long as they held property.
“[Voting rights] was more extensive than England or other places in Europe for a long time,” said Hayduk.
During the 1800s, Wisconsin even allowed newcomers to vote in state and federal elections as long as they intended to pursue U.S. citizenship.
However, as residents felt overwhelmed by immigrants coming in from South and Eastern Europe during the turn of the century, states tightened down on voter policy, said Hayduk. He drew a parallel between then and today.
“If you look at the news reports of the day back then, you could substitute Italians or Jews with Muslims and Mexicans. It reads very similar,” said Hayduk.
Despite the current anti-immigration sentiment in many parts of the country, Murillo said the proposal could “only make democracy stronger.”