Republicans are suing the cities of Winooski and Montpelier in an effort to strike down recent charter changes that allow noncitizens to vote in local elections.
The suits, brought by the Vermont GOP and the Republican National Committee, contend that the cities' new charters violate the Vermont Constitution, which limits voting to U.S. citizens 18 and over. In the complaints, attorney Brady Toensing wrote that the limit should apply to municipal elections, contending that in modern times, they are not distinct from their state and national counterparts.
"Over the years, the state has become more and more involved in what previously were strictly local matters, erasing distinctions that previously existed between local and state affairs," he wrote.
Both municipalities passed the charter changes by wide margins, and the Vermont legislature approved them earlier this year, too. But Gov. Phil Scott vetoed the measures on the grounds that “highly variable town-by-town approach” to local voting effectively creates “separate and unequal classes of residents.” The state House and Senate overrode Scott's veto in June.
“If we truly believe in local control, then members of these communities can say who they believe should have a say in local elections,” Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint (D-Windham) said at a press conference in June.
At least 10 other U.S. municipalities have extended local voting rights to noncitizens. Supporters of the concept argue that noncitizens pay taxes into local schools and municipalities and should therefore have a say in how the money is spent.
The RNC views the concept differently, describing it in a press release on Tuesday as a “radical scheme” and a “blatant attack on election integrity.”
“Republicans are fighting back on this far-left assault against election integrity — unlike radical Democrats, we believe that our elections should be decided solely by American citizens,” RNC chair Ronna McDaniel said in the release. “This is a matter of principle and we will fight in all 50 states to ensure this remains the case.”
This isn’t the first time national Republicans have attempted to intervene in Vermont elections. A year ago, two attorneys with ties to the RNC were involved in a federal lawsuit seeking to prevent Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos from mailing ballots to registered voters ahead of the November 2020 election. A judge ultimately dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that the plaintiffs had failed to show they would be negatively impacted by the plan.
The new lawsuits name 10 Vermont residents as plaintiffs, including state GOP chair Deb Billado and national committeeman Jay Shepard.
Billado had previously shown little interest in wading into the debate over noncitizen voting, telling the Associated Press three years ago that it was up to voters to decide what’s best for their individual communities. “I think those issues are best left at the local level,” she said.
Reached Tuesday, Billado declined to comment on why she has changed her mind, deferring all questions to the plaintiffs’ attorneys.
Scott, meanwhile, had little to say about the lawsuit when asked during his weekly press conference on Tuesday. He did note that the RNC's reasons for opposing the charter changes differed from his own.
"This is now in the courts — probably appropriately — and will come to a conclusion based on what they say," Scott said.
In a statement to Seven Days, state Rep. Hal Colston (D-Winooski), who is also a member of the Winooski City Council, wrote that noncitizens had been allowed to vote in local elections for much of America's history before the rise of anti-immigration laws in the early 20th century.
"It is apparent to me that the vestiges of xenophobia are alive today," Colston wrote of the lawsuits. "This action of the RNC does not surprise me as they seek to turn over every stone to suppress the voice of voters."
Conor Casey, a Montpelier City Councilor, didn't seem fazed by the national attention, tweeting on Tuesday morning: “You know you’re doing something right if the RNC is suing you.”
Burlington, which has tried and failed to pass similar noncitizen voting rules, is again considering the issue.
This story will be updated. Read the complaint against Winooski here: