- Luke Eastman
On Monday night, the Winooski City Council temporarily settled a debate that has divided its denizens: whether to allow Onion City residents who are living legally in the U.S. but are not citizens to vote in municipal and school elections. No Vermont community has yet taken that step.
The gathering attracted a number of young homeowners who spoke of Winooski's growing diversity and urged councilors to vote to put the question on the November ballot. Some older residents argued against it, decrying the idea as too radical.
Conspicuously absent from the meeting, and the debate leading up to it, were any New Americans — the potential beneficiaries of the proposed municipal charter change. City officials conceded that no one reached out to the local refugee community to solicit feedback or encourage attendance.
Citing their lack of involvement, along with unanswered legal and procedural questions, the city council voted 3-2 against the initiative. The state legislature must approve any municipal charter change.
"It's not just our responsibility to make the right decision; it's our responsibility to do it the right way," said Winooski Mayor Seth Leonard, who voted no along with Councilors Kristine Lott and Nicole Mace. "It's great to philosophically want something ... It's another thing to have your ducks in a row."
City Councilors Eric Covey and Hal Colston voted in favor of the measure. The entire group agreed — but did not vote — to explore creating a committee to vet the issue before the next opportunity on Town Meeting Day in March.
Montpelier may beat Winooski to it. Capital city residents will decide in November whether noncitizens should be able to vote on issues in their municipality. More than 300 people signed a petition to put the question on the ballot. City Clerk John Odum said it would only impact a few residents.
In Winooski, by contrast, giving noncitizens an official say could potentially create a powerful new voting bloc and reinforce the city's reputation as a hot spot of change. The Onion City has welcomed refugees from Africa and Asia for decades, and many of them have started local businesses.
Around 15 percent of Winooski's 7,267 residents were foreign-born, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and city officials believe the number is higher today. Some of them have obtained citizenship, but many are lawful permanent residents. Better known as green card holders, these individuals have been granted permission by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to live permanently in the country, but they cannot vote. The already-slow process of earning U.S. citizenship — and with it, voting rights — has reportedly decelerated under President Donald Trump.
Winooski is Vermont's only "majority-minority" school district, in which a couple dozen languages can usually be heard. Masiti Mohamed's job there as a school registrar and counselor includes reaching out to the district's myriad minority communities. But she said she was "surprised" to learn about the noncitizen voting initiative a few days before the council vote. A Winooski resident herself, she's a naturalized U.S. citizen who came to Vermont from Kenya in 2004.
Nonetheless, she endorsed the idea. Many Winooski residents who don't have citizenship "don't feel like they belong to the city. They want to be a part of everything that is going on," Mohamed said. "But they feel like, 'Oh, maybe I could make a difference, but I don't have any rights.'"
Vietnamese immigrant Thanh Pham was similarly unaware of what the local city council was doing. Inside his Spicy Land Asian Supermarket on Main Street, Pham said he had heard only "a little" chatter about the issue among his customers. Pham, who owned the now-shuttered Darshan Namaste Asian Deli in Winooski, said many immigrants prefer to keep a low profile and avoid contact with authorities. And many of those who would like to get involved don't because they lack sufficient language skills to vote and participate in debates.
"It's not that they don't want to step up," Pham said. "It's the English."
Without a strong push from the New American community, how did the proposal make its way before the council?
It grew out of the council's years-long effort to revise Winooski's charter, the legal document that guides the city. Its work resulted mostly in proposed tweaks — such as allowing city councilors to hold voice votes instead of roll call votes — that would never make headlines. But the council also decided it was time to debate who exactly was allowed to vote on Election Day.
Councilor Covey made a case for expanding representation to include noncitizens. "Citizens or not, they pay taxes, own homes, send their kids to schools, but have no say on how their money is spent," said Covey in an interview. "If you're a resident of Winooski, you have an investment in the direction of our community, and you deserve a voice."
Three years ago, Burlington residents rejected the idea of noncitizen voting in a citywide vote, and it wasn't particularly close: 58 percent to 42 percent.
Some other spots in the country have been persuaded, however. The Maryland suburbs of Takoma Park and College Park permit noncitizens to vote in local elections. Chicago has allowed noncitizens to vote in school elections for nearly 30 years, and San Francisco implemented an identical policy earlier this year.
So what derailed Winooski?
George Cross may have had something to do with it. The former Winooski school superintendent and interim city manager represented the Onion City for 10 years as a Democrat in the legislature. He considers himself "liberal on most social issues" and has helped refugees study for citizenship exams and given them blankets and food when they first settled in the area.
But Cross has always opposed the idea of noncitizen voting, he said in an interview.
"I'm of the opinion that there are certain rights and responsibilities that accrue to citizens, and one of those happens to be voting," Cross said. "I'm all for finding ways to incorporate everyone into the community. But voting, to me, is different. It needs to stay as both a privilege and a right."
He made his case at Monday's council meeting. Lifelong Winooski resident Margaret Ticehurst agreed.
"Our country was founded on voting by American citizens," Ticehurst told councilors. "You are making it easy for them to settle in and say, 'I don't have to do anything; I can vote.' What will it be next? Step back and try to understand what American citizenship stands for."
The councilors who voted no said they needed more time to solve a host of potential problems. For one: They want to find a way to protect noncitizen voter registration information from getting into the hands of federal immigration authorities. The city's attorney, Bob DiPalma, said it was unclear whether Winooski could legally do that.
And there were other unanswered questions. How could city workers verify residency for noncitizens who don't have driver's licenses or other traditional documents? Would immigrants with temporary student visas be eligible? Does the Vermont Constitution even allow a community to do this? (DiPalma said it was open to interpretation but suggested that the city could get sued by opponents of noncitizen voting.) Would the federal government cut grant funding to the city in retaliation?
Aaron Lipman, who bought a home in Winooski this year, made a counter-argument for action. He told councilors about how he got emotional when casting his first vote as a resident of the city. He wants his New American neighbors to be able to have the same experience.
"We can't control what the legislature is going to do, what the Vermont Supreme Court is going to do, what the federal government is going to do," said Lipman. "We can only do what is right to build the kind of community we want to live in."