Noncitizens vote elsewhere in the U.S. — why not here?
St. Paul group wants a debate on letting legal immigrants cast ballots in local elections
An influential political group in St. Paul wants city leaders to talk about letting noncitizens vote in local elections, an idea sure to join a list of hotly debated immigration issues in Minnesota.
Precisely which noncitizens could be allowed to cast ballots is an open question. Cities outside Minnesota have passed laws enabling people with legal immigration papers to vote.
Take Action Minnesota listed the idea on literature it gave City Council candidates before screening them for endorsement last month. The group aims to "start a conversation" about the issue, said Dan McGrath, Take Action's executive director.
"There's no reason that legal, taxpaying citizens shouldn't have a say in how those taxes are spent," McGrath said.
Take Action, whose former board chairwoman is a top aide to St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, has not drafted an ordinance or defined what it considers a legal noncitizen.
"It's not something we're campaigning on, and I don't think we will," McGrath said. "This is about having a conversation with the people that we're going to endorse, and we want to start putting some things out there."
Noncitizen voting efforts have succeeded elsewhere. Takoma Park and five other towns in Maryland allow some form of noncitizen voting. Chicago allows noncitizens to vote in school board elections, and a proposition for similar voting rights in San Francisco lost by a 2 percent margin.
"It ought to tell you something that this didn't even fly in San Francisco," said Ira Mehlmen, a Los Angeles-based spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, referring to a voting-rights expansion effort that narrowly failed a referendum vote in 2004. "I think it just rubs people the wrong way."
Last month, a coalition of 60 organizations launched an effort in New York City to allow legal immigrants to vote for the city's highest elected officials.
Laws governing who can vote have historically been loosely defined, said Ron Hayduk, a professor at the Borough of Manhattan Community College and a spokesman for the Immigrant Voting Project, a driving force behind the voting-rights effort in New York City.
Citizenship requirements have been a relatively recent development, dating back to the turn of the last century, Hayduk said of research he had done on the matter.
"Out of the 231 years the U.S. has been in existence, noncitizens have voted somewhere for 189 of those," he said. "Immigrants could run for office, could win seats and did. The idea that noncitizens could vote is older, practiced longer and more consistent with democratic ideals that the practice of not allowing them to vote."
Hayduk said access to the polls is also a good way to assimilate new arrivals to a community, particularly school board races, since having kids in public school gives residents a stake in the process.
"They're relatively minor elections, but they're also a great way to gain civic engagement and political education," he said.
It would be a difficult sell in Minnesota, nonetheless: The state constitution requires voters to be citizens, and would likely require amendment to expand the franchise in St. Paul, according to Ramsey County elections manager Joe Mansky.
None of the city's current elected leadership expressed any support for such an effort, including Mayor Chris Coleman.
But Take Action has been a political force in St. Paul. When it was known as Progressive Minnesota, the organization was key to defeating a Twins ballpark referendum in 1999 and passing three excess school levies in a row. That group endorsed then-mayoral candidate Coleman in 2005, and his deputy policy director, Anne Hunt, was chair of the Take Action Minnesota board until last month.
More than half of the candidates standing for council elections are members of the group, and three of them, who have earned Take Action's endorsement, are former members of the board of directors, including union activist and Ward 4 contender Bernie Hesse, former Coleman staffer Melvin Carter and East Side activist Pakou Hang.
Take Action also endorsed Ward 5 Council Member Lee Helgen.
Neither Hesse nor Helgen said they were familiar with Take Action's position on the matter, and Pakou Hang, running against Ward 6 Council Member Dan Bostrom, did not respond to a call about the subject.
Carter, though, said it would be something he might consider.
"Any time you talk about that, changing what we do on Election Day, it's bound to be controversial," he said. Still, he said, "It's absolutely something I'd be interested in. We have a lot of new immigrants in Ward 1, and I think it's important that those folks have a voice, too."