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Non-Citizen Residents Seek Right to Vote in Vermont

Local Matters


Published October 25, 2006 at 2:27 p.m.

BURLINGTON - Marta Ceroni won't be voting on November 7 - not because she doesn't want to; but because she can't. Ceroni, an assistant professor at the University of Vermont's Gund Institute, has lived in the U.S. for nine years - in Burlington for the last four. But she's still an Italian citizen, which means that she can't vote.

At least, not yet.

Ceroni, founder of the nonpartisan Local Democracy Project, suggests that non-citizens like herself should be granted the right to vote, at least in local elections. She recently compiled an online survey to gauge interest among non-citizen Vermont residents, and plans to approach the Burlington City Council to ask that the city charter be amended to give non-citizen residents a say in how the Queen City is run. The Local Democracy Project will hold a meeting to discuss its campaign on November 2 at 7 p.m., at Burlington's Euro Gourmet Café.

The idea is actually not as radical as it might seem. The U.S. Constitution gives states the right to decide who votes in elections and, until the 1920s, many allowed non-citizens to vote. According to Ron Hayduk, co-director of the Immigrant Rights Voting Project, non-citizens voted in 40 states and territories between 1776 and 1926.

That ended as a wave of immigrants entered the U.S., but for the past few years activists nationwide have been pushing to reinstitute the practice. Communities in Maryland, Illinois and Massachusetts have passed laws granting some voting rights to non-citizens; cities in California and New York have considered similar legislation.

Ceroni points out that non-citizens contribute to the tax base, send their kids to city schools, and contribute valuable cultural diversity. They even serve in the military. "There are a lot of folks in Iraq who are willing to die for this country," she notes, "but they can't even vote."

She adds that extending local suffrage would make non-citizens feel more like part of the community. That's important, Ceroni says, because Burlington has a sizable non-citizen population. According to the 2000 Census, Burlington had 3140 foreign-born residents, just 39 percent of whom were naturalized citizens. Voting, she says, "would be a great integration tool."

According to her survey, Ceroni is not alone in her desire to vote. She says 28 non-citizen respondents participated, and most rated non-citizen voting in local elections as "important." Ceroni had hoped for more respondents, but reports many people approached her personally and expressed a fear of jeopardizing their jobs or immigration status, despite the fact that the survey was anonymous.

Ceroni says she understands their fear. It can be scary to rock the boat in post-9/11 America, especially while navigating the lengthy process of seeking citizenship. "It's a very difficult climate," she admits.

Most of Ceroni's respondents were from Canada - 21 percent - followed by India, Sweden and Russia. Nearly half live in Burlington; the rest reside in nearby communities. On average they've been here for more than three years. The majority feels that legal immigrants should earn the right to vote in local elections after a year of residency; 21 percent preferred two years.

Roel Boumans, a Dutch immigrant and one of Ceroni's colleagues at Gund, says he'd like to vote in Charlotte. He has lived in the U.S. for 20 years - in Charlotte for the last four. He owns a 14-acre farm, but when residents discuss land-use issues at Town Meeting Day, he has to keep quiet. He can't even sit with his neighbors - he's shunted off to the visitor's section.

"It's kind of a painful situation," Boumans says.

He claims he knows developers in town who would like to build near his land, and he complains that, as voters, they have an advantage. "It's an uneven playing field," Boumans says. "By owning land in Charlotte, I automatically become part of the political scene there."

But though Ceroni and Boumans would like to see things change, Ceroni stresses that she doesn't plan to organize protests. "We don't want to take to the streets," she says. "It's not like that."

More than anything else, she says she's motivated by a desire to make Burlington a community that reflects the interests of all its residents. She says, "It's a matter of asking the question: What does it mean to be a fully accepting democratic society at the local level?"