Who gets a vote? That simple question belies a complex reality facing a new study group in Portland.
Tuesday night, the Portland City Council decided Mayor Ethan Strimling and Councilor Pious Ali’s proposal to permit non-citizens to vote needed more work. The ACLU was worried about it violating privacy rights, while many Portland voters thought it was nosing onto a slippery slope or legally invalid.
The philosophical argument underlying the idea has a certain logic. Many immigrant, non-citizen families live in Portland, pay property tax (directly or indirectly), and have children in city schools. Therefore, they should have a say in how government policies are adopted.
That speaks to something at the core of Maine’s character: local control. Forget Augusta, forget Washington, forget the next town over; we can take care of our own. But “our own” is the challenge. Plenty has been said about the statewide saying “from away,” but when does a family moving from Lewiston become part of Winslow? Is it different if the town is Auburn, Biddeford, or Bangor, or if they left not Lewiston, but Lithuania? When does a new family get claimed by their new town?
Portland’s argument also breaks down when the impact argument is extrapolated. Is having kids in school the correct litmus test for voting for school board? If it is, there are plenty of voters without children who should be disenfranchised. Or, if we are going to measure the vote by the impact government can have on an individual … well, Strimling keeps proposing new municipal employment regulations. There are thousands of people who work in Portland but reside in other communities. Should they all get a vote on whether the mayor should keep his job and keep offering ordinances?
In a peculiar way, this is the corollary of many gripes expressed by those on the right. The idea that college students from outside Maine may sojourn into our state for four academic years and tip close elections is anathema. Why? Because the thought is that those students have no real connection to Maine; if their actions result in bad policy getting adopted, they will not have to suffer the consequences if they head to New York, Boston, or Washington.
Taken together, this is why a clear line is necessary. And we have one: United States citizens vote where they are residents. Whether by birth or choice, citizenship conveys a permanence to one’s commitment to their country. And while the concept of “residence” is less definite, there is at least decades of law that can help answer the question. It too conveys a sense of permanence.
Now, if the argument is that the process to become a citizen is far too complex, there is only one response: amen! Our immigration system is a mess. Fault for that lies in Washington, with both parties. President George W. Bush didn’t fix it, President Barack Obama didn’t, and President Donald Trump hasn’t.
But that is the real solution. Congress should find it within themselves to address the disaster of our immigration policy. And if new immigrant families want to take on the responsibility — and it is a responsibility — of voting, they should renounce their prior ties and proudly proclaim themselves American citizens.
We live in a complex world. Many new Mainers know this better than most, having been forced to flee to the beacon that is the United States. Fate is chance; no one gets a choice in where they are born. So citizenship and residence may seem an arbitrary line on the ability to vote, and it is. But it is clear and enforceable. Portland’s study group would wise to maintain it.
On a personal note, I would be remiss if I did not take a moment to recognize the late Chris Cousins. I worked with Chris during my time in Augusta; he even plugged a story about my departure from the governor’s office; it was a humbling honor.
Chris was one of the good guys. He would not be misled by spin or the talking points which arise all too often in politics. However, he wouldn’t play a “gotcha” game either, turning an inartful quip into a headline. You could speak candidly with him, offering the background “why” to help make the reporting on “what” that much stronger. He was fair and straightforward; Maine is worse off with his passing.