More than three years after Montpelier residents decided to allow non-U.S. citizens to vote in municipal elections it will finally happen.
When voters head to the polls for the next election, likely Town Meeting Day on March 1, 2022, legal immigrants who reside in the capital city will be allowed to vote on city issues, such as budgets, and for elected officials, such as the mayor and city councilors. Legal immigrants are not eligible to vote in state or federal contests.
The city charter change that voters approved (2,857–1,488) in November 2018 was officially implemented on June 24, but it took a legislative override of Gov. Phil Scott’s veto to get it done. The House voted 103–47 to override the veto in a special veto session on June 23, and the Senate completed the job the next day by a no-margin-for-error count of 20–10. A two-thirds majority of each body is needed to override a gubernatorial veto. Lawmakers also overrode the governor’s veto of a similar charter change in Winooski by identical votes.
City charter changes in Vermont must be approved by the state legislature in a process that is usually straightforward. But the issue of non-citizen voting concerned many members, and the bill languished in committee. And then COVID-19 arrived, and the legislature held a truncated remote session in 2020 that focused almost exclusively on the state budget.
Both the Montpelier and Winooski bills were passed in May 2021, but Scott vetoed them, saying the legislature should establish a statewide policy on non-citizen voting rather than let towns decide their own rules.
“Allowing a highly variable town-by-town approach to municipal voting creates inconsistency in election policy, as well as separate and unequal classes of residents potentially eligible to vote on local issues,” Scott wrote in his veto message. “I believe it is the role of the Legislature to establish clarity and consistency on this matter.”
The override vote was similar to the original tally in the House, but the Senate vote was a bit more dicey, as Sen. Richard Mazza, D-Chittenden/Grand Isle, switched from yea to nay, making it 20–10.
Montpelier City Clerk John Odum, who endorsed the concept from the beginning and helped guide the process, said cities and towns have the right to manage their own elections.
“It’s always been Montpelier’s call on how we run our elections, and we are thrilled to offer immigrants the same respect that all of their other neighbors expect for themselves,” he said. “It’s also nice to think that Montpelier could be an example to other like-minded communities, especially as the first state capital to do this.”
The idea of allowing legal residents to vote in city elections began in earnest in 2018, when resident Roberta Garland started a petition drive to put the question on the ballot. Her spouse, Maike Garland, is from Norway and did not want to give up her Norwegian citizenship even though she has lived in Montpelier for years. (Norway recently changed its law and Maike has since obtained dual citizenship).
Garland, who had very little experience in politics, said she learned a lot from the process.
“I think it’s very exciting,” she said. “It took more years than I expected, but it was worth it. It’s very strange to be in this country so long and not be able to vote.”
Garland said she intends next to contact Montpelier-Roxbury Public Schools officials to discuss the possibility of giving legal immigrants the right to vote on school issues as well, a matter that is complicated by the inclusion of Roxbury residents in the district.
How It Will Work
Under the charter change, Odum is required to maintain a separate voter checklist for non-U.S. citizens and to produce a ballot that contains only city issues. The charter change does not allow non-citizens to vote on school matters because the Montpelier-Roxbury Public Schools district is not a self-contained city entity. Winooski’s bill does allow voting on school matters.
Odum said prospective legal immigrants should register to vote in city elections by mail or in person rather than use the Secretary of State’s web portal. That system would flag the applicant as a non-U.S. citizen, he said.
“There’s no difference between the way we do it with current residents and non-citizens,” he said. “They will register like anyone with proof of residence and I’ll probably have a parallel registration form that doesn’t necessitate being a U.S. citizen to vote in city elections.”
Odum said he expects the new law will apply to fewer than two-dozen Montpelier residents, but the change indicates that Montpelier welcomes all of its residents..
“We’re saying our neighbors are our neighbors,” he said. “Folks who live here have a right to make decisions, and it really has nothing to do with any national discussion on immigration. It’s who we are and how we want to run our city, and it is great that it will make immigrants feel more welcome in our city because they are completely welcome in our city.”