The Vermont House of Representatives voted on Wednesday to override Gov. Phil Scott’s vetoes of two bills that would allow noncitizens in Montpelier and Winooski to vote in local elections.
By a vote of 103 to 47, representatives mustered the two-thirds vote necessary to force the bills into law over the governor’s objections. The 30-member Senate is expected to follow suit later this week.
The residents of the two cities had already voted overwhelmingly to change their charters to allow noncitizens to vote in local — but not statewide or national — elections. The Vermont legislature must approve all proposed local charter changes, and it did so in these cases. But Scott vetoed both measures earlier this month.
“This is the local control that Vermont champions,” Rep. Hal Colston (D-Winooski) said. “This is the local democracy that other states covet.”
In his veto message, Scott argued that a “highly variable town-by-town approach” to local voting effectively creates “separate and unequal classes of residents.”
He instead suggested lawmakers pass a “statewide policy or a uniform template” to create consistency among communities.
Lawmakers on Wednesday argued that towns should have the right to control who gets to vote on local matters that affect their lives, such as school board budgets and selectboard elections.
Rep. John Gannon (D-Wilmington) noted that other cities around the nation had allowed noncitizens to vote with no election problems. He also noted that during the COVID-19 state of emergency, Vermont allowed municipalities to decide whether they wanted to delay Town Meeting Day or implement vote-by-mail measures to keep voters safe.
“A town-by-town approach to municipal voting works,” Gannon said.
The lone objection voiced was by first-term Rep. Art Peterson (R-Clarendon), who noted that the Vermont Constitution requires voters to be citizens.
“Without a very clear understanding of something written differently, I don’t know how we get by that and allow noncitizens to vote,” Peterson said.
But Colston noted that the legislature has the power to pass laws that conflict with the Constitution. For instance, courts upheld voting measures passed by the legislature that gave women the right to vote, even when that right was not enshrined in the Constitution.
Wednesday's vote took place during a special session of the legislature. It was held remotely, even though Gov. Scott lifted pandemic state of emergency restrictions earlier this month. That led Secretary of State Jim Condos to remind public bodies in the state that they must begin meeting in-person. The legislature, though, is not bound by state open meeting laws but rather by its own rules for public access.