Winooski, Montpelier Will Allow Noncitizens to Vote, but Few Have Signed Up | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

News + Opinion » Politics

Winooski, Montpelier Will Allow Noncitizens to Vote, but Few Have Signed Up

By

City officials presenting the budget proposal at the Winooski Senior Center last Thursday - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • City officials presenting the budget proposal at the Winooski Senior Center last Thursday

Prashant Singh first came to the U.S. from India on a work visa in 2012. For the past eight years, he's lived in Winooski, where he owns a house, pays taxes and sends his three children to local schools. He has served on a handful of city committees; in 2018, he helped push the school district to expand winter bus services so that students who lived on the other side of town wouldn't have to walk on icy roads.

But Singh's application for permanent legal residency has languished in bureaucracy, and it likely will be at least five more years before he gains full citizenship, he said. His zest for civic participation hasn't had an outlet at the polls until this year, when the cities of Winooski and Montpelier will allow noncitizens to cast ballots in local elections.

Singh, along with some 600 other Winooski residents, is now eligible to participate in Town Meeting Day. He's unequivocally stoked. "I'm really, really excited to finally be able to have a voice," said Singh, who was a member of the city commission that advocated for what is known as all-resident voting. "I do everything that is done by a citizen. I think I should get some rights, some sort of privileges that I can enjoy."

Two weeks before Town Meeting Day, though, Singh was one of just eight noncitizen voters who had registered in Winooski. Despite the city's outreach efforts, proponents of all-resident voting say that cultural, technological and linguistic divides have kept turnout low.

"Some people have a lot of trauma and fear from back home," said Tul Niroula, one of eight multilingual liaisons who work with New American families in the school district. "They're skeptical. We can't just tell them to go out and vote."

Winooski boasts the most diverse population in the state: More than a quarter of its 8,000 residents speak a language other than English, according to U.S. Census data, and the city is also home to Vermont's largest refugee population. Irene Webster, a candidate for the Winooski City Council, believes that more targeted education efforts are necessary to make civic life accessible to New Americans, particularly those who are still learning English.

"They've been given a basic overview of the process of registering to vote, but I don't think many of them have really grasped it," said Webster, who works as a case manager for AALV, a nonprofit that supports New Americans living in Vermont. "They need ongoing support in order to make informed decisions, because they're still vulnerable members of society."

Only U.S. citizens can cast state and federal ballots, but 15 municipalities across the country allow noncitizen voting in local elections. On last year's Town Meeting Day, Winooski became the second Vermont city to take that step; Montpelier passed a similar ballot measure in 2018. (Burlington voters rejected all-resident voting in 2015; when the issue resurfaced in 2020, the city council punted it to a committee.)

Changes to local voting policy require a charter amendment, which must win legislative — and gubernatorial — approval before the new rules can take effect. Gov. Phil Scott vetoed Winooski and Montpelier's proposed charter changes last June, citing concerns about inconsistencies in election policy across the state. A few weeks later, lawmakers overrode Scott's veto by a 103-47 vote, extending the franchise to new voters in both cities beginning this Town Meeting Day.

The Winooski and Montpelier charter amendments expanded voting rights against the backdrop of former president Donald Trump's attacks on state and local election officials and his baseless claims of voter fraud. Last year, as Republican-led legislatures in 19 states passed laws restricting voting rights, the Vermont GOP and the Republican National Committee sued Montpelier and Winooski, alleging that the cities had violated the state constitution by granting noncitizens the right to vote.

In court filings, a lawyer with the Vermont Attorney General's Office argued that the suits had no merit and that the state constitution contains no statute prohibiting noncitizen voting in local elections. Both cities petitioned to have the suits dismissed. A Washington County judge will hear the Montpelier case on March 31; no court date has been set for the Winooski suit.

The local discourse, meanwhile, has been much more subdued. "I haven't heard a peep around here," said Montpelier City Clerk John Odum, who was named as a defendant in the Republicans' suit. "The folks who voted against it were a clear minority, and they didn't seem to feel that strongly about it, except for the two guys who sued me." (Those two guys are Montpelier residents Charles Ferry and Maurice Martineau, who joined the state GOP and RNC as plaintiffs; Winooski resident Douglas Weston is a plaintiff in the suit against his city.)

During a recent city council candidate forum in Winooski, two of the five hopefuls criticized all-resident voting. David Xavier Wallace, who is also campaigning for school board on the platform that all books containing references to human sexuality should be banned from classrooms, said he would like to repeal the policy.

"The people that are U.S. citizens by birthright and those that took the time to become U.S. citizens through the naturalization process ... we disenfranchise those people by diluting their vote," he said.

Another candidate, Chad Bushway, suggested that all-resident voting might be "dangerous."

"Not everyone in the world has good intentions for us," he said.

But Aurora Hurd, who is also running for one of the two open seats on the Winooski City Council, doesn't think that the upcoming election will be a referendum on all-resident voting. "It could become a flash point, but I really haven't seen that happen yet," said Hurd, who supports all-resident voting.

Earlier this week, Hurd knocked on doors on Elm Street in Winooski and, with the help of two multilingual community members, handed out translated voter registration instructions. "Even if someone decides not to vote for me, at least they'll have the information they need," Hurd said.

On a Saturday in mid-February, the City of Winooski held an informational session for newly eligible voters at the O'Brien Community Center. About two dozen people showed up, Mayor Kristine Lott said, and a few filled out voter applications on the spot.

In Montpelier, four people have registered so far under the all-resident policy, according to Odum, the city clerk. The state capital, population 7,500, is much more demographically homogenous than Winooski; just 4 percent of residents were born outside the U.S., and fewer than 4 percent speak a language other than English at home. Thirty Afghan refugees — 20 adults and 10 children — have recently been resettled in the city.

Montpelier will offer translated ballots in Spanish and Pashto, one of the languages spoken in Afghanistan. Beyond that, Odum said he's not aware of any city-led initiatives to court potential voters.

"Myself and a couple individuals have promoted it on Front Porch Forum, but my approach has been just to treat potential noncitizen voters as our more standard voters," Odum said. "I know Winooski has done some specific outreach, but we may not have the bandwidth to do that."

In Winooski, the only school district in Vermont where students of color make up the majority, some New American households lack the technological know-how to navigate the city's online resources for new voters.

"A lot of our parents don't have any experience using computers," said Emily Hecker, the communications and development director for the school district.

Tul Niroula - MATTHEW THORSEN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Matthew Thorsen ©️ Seven Days
  • Tul Niroula

Multilingual liaisons, such as Niroula, already have strong relationships within the community, Hecker explained, which makes them ideal conduits for information about participating in local elections. When the city first mailed out ballots in early February, the school district sent recorded phone messages from the liaisons in more than nine languages and dialects, including Swahili, Somali, Nepali, Vietnamese, Burmese, French, Arabic, Kirundi and Pashto, to offer help with the registration process.

"I think our outreach could have been stronger, as a city and as a school district," Hecker acknowledged. "But we have to start somewhere."

There's also the rather fundamental problem of making the minutiae of municipal politics digestible in any language. Webster, the Winooski City Council candidate, was recently asked to read the Town Meeting Day ballot in Swahili on local access television. "I was thinking the whole time, This is a lot of jargon. Who is going to understand this?" Webster said. "Even I had trouble understanding it." Last Thursday evening, a city and school budget presentation at the Winooski Senior Center drew just seven people, all of whom were city officials or school board members.

And for many newly enfranchised residents, Niroula said, the barriers to casting a ballot aren't simply logistical. In communities where the scars of political violence run deep, the very notion of participating in an election can be fraught with trauma. When Niroula recently met with a group of parents, he said, two women told him they wouldn't register because they're still haunted by memories of family members who were imprisoned for voting in their home countries.

"I explained to them that this is our right, that there won't be any problem," Niroula said. "But a lot of them still aren't comfortable. To make people understand, I think, it will take time."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Voter's Block"