After months of sharp debate culminating in a heated city council hearing, the City of College Park on Tuesday night became the latest U.S. municipality to open its elections to noncitizen voters. The vote by a divided city council occurred just days ahead of a filing deadline for November’s local election.
The 4-3 vote approving the change to the city’s charter came after roughly four hours of debate, according to The Diamondback, the student newspaper for the University of Maryland. Councilman Fazlul Kabir, a naturalized U.S. citizen and University of Maryland instructor who had earlier pushed for putting the question up for voter consideration in November’s election, abstained from the final vote, the paper said.
After his call for a referendum was voted down, Mr. Kabir proposed to amend the city charter to allow only noncitizens who are permanent residents — colloquially known as “green card” holders — to join the city’s voter rolls. That amendment was rejected after a vote by Mayor Patrick Wojahn broke the council’s 4-4 tie.
“It’s really difficult when a divisive issue like this comes up in our community. I hope we can move beyond it and continue to work together for a stronger College Park,” Mayor Wojahn told the Reuters news service.
Under the new policy the city clerk must maintain a separate list of foreigners who are eligible to vote. The measure will be in effect for 2019 city elections.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 10 other towns in heavily Democratic Maryland also allow noncitizens to vote. Chicago also allows noncitizens to vote in local school council elections.
The charter amendment as passed will allow for foreign students at the University of Maryland on education visas, for example, to vote in city elections provided they have met College Park’s residency requirements for voting.
A contentious issue that drew out strongly worded testimony on both sides — one city resident supporting the charter change said opponents were “white supremacists” exhibiting “xenophobia,” The Diamondback reported — it’s unclear if Tuesday’s outcome will spark a backlash against council incumbents in this November’s election.
According to the city government website, persons wishing to run for city council or mayor must file the requisite paperwork, including a petition for candidacy signed by registered voters, no later than 4 p.m. on Sept. 22.
College Park holds municipal elections in odd-numbered years in November, and they are conducted by city officials separate from county, state and federal races, for which voters must be U.S. citizens. The charter amendment will not be in place this time around, however, going into effect in the November 2019 election.
The pro-immigrant activist group CASA praised the vote as a “courageous step in the right direction,” particularly given the controversy and debate sparked by the proposed amendment.
“All residents, regardless of immigration status, deserve to have a say on who should be the decision makers on municipal issues, from big topics like public safety and community building, to the daily work of garbage collection and snow removal,” said Gustavo Torres, CASA’s executive director, in a statement Wednesday.
“The City of College Park has just issued a declaration that everyone is welcome to the table of their community family,” he added.
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