- Luke Awtry
- Prashant Singh
Two years after a similar effort stalled, Winooski voters will decide in November whether to allow the city's substantial number of noncitizen immigrants to vote in municipal elections.
Although other Vermont communities have discussed such measures, the question is particularly significant for Winooski, a city of 7,300 that boasts Vermont's most diverse population and the state's only majority-minority school district. Nearly 10 percent of its voting-age residents are not citizens, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — a rate more than double that of the Burlington metro area. The proposal would allow noncitizen voting only in city and school elections; state and federal ballots would remain off-limits.
A "yes" vote would enshrine the new voting rights in the Onion City's charter, though the change would still require approval by the legislature and governor.
That blessing from the state capital might not be so easy to obtain. In November 2018, Montpelier voters approved a noncitizen voting charter change. The Vermont House backed it, but the measure died in the Senate; it could be reintroduced next year.
Similar charter changes have gone nowhere in two other communities. Burlington voters shot it down in 2015; an effort to revive the question failed earlier this year. Vergennes voters in March 2020 narrowly rejected an advisory question, 454-436, that asked whether city councilors should discuss the issue.
When Winooski first proposed noncitizen voting in September 2018, a majority of its five city councilors agreed to delay putting the question on the ballot. They said they wanted feedback from the more than 600 noncitizens who call Winooski home.
In the years since, officials say, they've gathered the necessary feedback and are ready to hear from voters — some of whom have already cast their ballots by now, using Vermont's new universal mail-in voting system.
"A lot of people certainly are on one side or the other," Mayor Kristine Lott said. "They've had a chance to get information on it, to get used to the concept. And now it's time to make a decision."
Many of those on either side of the issue were in attendance in July 2019, when the city council met to create its seven-member charter commission. Councilor Hal Colston, who is also a Democratic state representative, spoke in favor of the change. He said the status quo essentially condones taxation without representation for the city's New Americans. When he explained that it can take up to 10 years for some immigrants to obtain citizenship, one woman said that's the way it should be.
"Why are we bending down to them?" she asked.
Prashant Singh also attended that meeting and listened to the debate with frustration. Singh, 41, moved to the U.S. from India on a work visa in 2011 and relocated from California to Winooski three years later. His application for a green card — formally known as permanent legal residency — has been stuck in a queue since 2016. Once he gets a green card, Singh will have to wait five more years before he can apply for citizenship.
"It is a long, long, long journey to make," he said, adding, "[Becoming a] naturalized citizen is a dream for me."
Singh works in Winooski, owns a home there and sends his three children to the city's schools. He's served on various committees, helped shape local education policy and paid taxes — but he can't vote.
"I think my voice should also be heard on things that can help Winooski to grow," he said, comparing voting to taking a community survey. "If you have more surveys," he said, "the result is more accurate."
Singh serves on the charter commission as one of two noncitizen members. The other, Winooski High School senior Hussein Amuri, 17, came to the U.S from a refugee camp in Tanzania in 2015. His family settled in Winooski the next year.
The commission's first order of business was to create information sheets about noncitizen voting, a term they dropped for the more inclusive "all-resident" voting, according to commission chair Liz Edsell. The two-page fact sheet was translated into seven languages, including Arabic, Nepali, Somali and Vietnamese. Edsell and other commissioners distributed 400 copies at the polls last March.
After a COVID-19-induced hiatus, commissioners partnered with Winooski's Home School Liaison Program this summer to reach even more New American families. The liaisons, who act as cultural brokers and interpreters, distributed the fact sheets to non-English-speaking families and set up individual calls to discuss the voting proposal. Altogether, the liaisons, commissioners, city councilors and mayor spoke with close to 100 people, all generally in favor of expanding the vote.
Commissioners also streamed a virtual Q&A session online and on Channel 17, posted on Front Porch Forum, and published information in the school newsletter. Members met residents at the Our Lady of Providence long-term-care home and surveyed renters living in Winooski Housing Authority properties.
The vitriolic reactions Edsell anticipated never materialized.
"We were providing information and asking for feedback and questions; we weren't advocating for or against the policy," she said. "People were really quite appreciative of that effort, and so I think that was effective."
George Cross, a former Winooski school superintendent and state legislator, thinks it was all for show. In an interview, he argued that the commission was made up only of people in favor of the voting change. An outspoken critic of the proposal, Cross said he applied to serve but was turned down.
Cross, who is 85 and has lived in Winooski for three decades, said he's helped new arrivals study for citizenship exams and considers himself "quite a liberal Democrat." But he thinks voting is a sacred right and questioned why citizens are leading Winooski's latest ballot drive instead of immigrants who want to vote.
That same complaint helped torpedo a similar voting push in Burlington earlier this year. Several immigrants denounced then-city councilor Adam Roof's plan because they said he hadn't engaged with New Americans. One resident accused Roof, a white man, of pandering for votes. Roof later withdrew the initiative, saying some residents had incorrectly assumed that undocumented people would be able to vote.
Edsell disagreed with Cross and noted the city's intensive outreach to immigrant communities. But sometimes allies also have to step up and help, she said.
"I think that's a lot to expect: [for] folks to rise up and build a movement, demanding their rights in a white supremacist society where the public debate is hostile," she said of noncitizens. "If you're trying to get by, are you gonna stick your neck out?"
Amuri, the teenage member of the commission, said his mom is too busy trying to provide for their family to become involved in the push for voting rights. A refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Amuri's mom works two jobs and hasn't come up with the $800 she needs to apply for naturalization. But she would vote if she could.
"At the end of the day, they don't have the voice they need ... even though they do all this stuff for our community," Amuri said of people like his mother. "It's just not right."
Winooski resident Kamal Dahal empathizes with the Amuris. Dahal's family fled their native Bhutan in the 1990s, and Dahal was born and raised in a Nepalese refugee camp. He became a U.S. citizen after living here for six years, but he said it takes much longer for many others, especially if English is not their first language.
Dahal said gaining citizenship was a huge reward, but he supports allowing all residents to vote on Winooski issues. Many New Americans have started businesses, pay taxes and contribute to the community in other ways. Without voting rights, they're not represented, he said.
"For refugee immigrants, they don't have a home that they can go back to ... but you are also not feeling accepted in the community that you live," Dahal said. "It's hard to [grapple] with that fact."
Winooski resident Dave Senical, however, thinks residency alone doesn't qualify someone to vote. He was one of a handful of people who called in to a virtual public hearing on the ballot item last month. Senical identified himself on the Zoom call as a disabled veteran who fought for Americans' right to vote.
"It pains me greatly to have people come up and say, 'Oh, they're here, so we should allow them to vote,'" he said. "What about the people at the VFW, the American Legion, the Regular Veterans Association — all these people who fought, and what are we? Just trash on your feet now?"
Cross, for his part, also takes issue with the argument that people who pay taxes in a town should be able to vote there. Using that logic, Cross said, second-home owners should be allowed to cast ballots.
"I don't think this tax argument is an argument that holds any water," he said.
Edsell said allowing legal noncitizens to vote doesn't dilute anyone else's rights. She's hopeful the ballot item will pass since it's being offered during a general election, one that is likely to command higher voter turnout. Mail-in voting will also allow people to research the proposal from their kitchen table.
"An inclusive and participatory democracy where more people participate is better, makes for a stronger nation, makes for stronger communities," she said. "And that is what we have the opportunity to do."