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Election Official Says Letting Non-Citizens Vote In D.C. Elections Would Face Hurdles

The D.C. Council is considering a bill that would allow legal permanent residents to vote in local elections.
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The D.C. Council is considering a bill that would allow legal permanent residents to vote in local elections.

D.C. legislators on Wednesday heard largely favorable testimony for a bill that would allow non-citizen legal residents to vote in local elections, but skeptics — including the head of the city's election board — expressed concern over the logistics of expanding the franchise to Green Card holders.

Under the measure introduced by Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) earlier this year, D.C. would join Takoma Park, Maryland, and a small number of other jurisdictions that allow legal permanent residents to vote in local elections. Grosso's bill would only require that those residents live in the city for 30 days before being able to cast ballots.

"'All politics is local' is a common phrase in the U.S. political system," he said at a Council hearing on the bill. "What most District residents care about are the local, tangible aspects of city life that affect them from day to day. But unfortunately, not all of our residents have a say in choosing the officials who make the policy decisions that directly affect them. In my opinion, this is unjust."

According to a 2012 census count, there are 54,000 foreign-born and non-citizen residents in the city, the majority of which are of voting age. Grosso said that because they pay taxes and send their children to local schools, they should be offered a formal voice in the debates that can shape their lives in the city.

Gabriela Mossi, the president of D.C. Latino Caucus, said that allowing legal permanent residents to vote would bring more voices and perspectives to the city's political process.

"I think this is an opportunity to enrich the District of Columbia with input from people from, literally, all corners of the world if they are able to vote. Their wide-ranging experience could be an asset if they are able to have a voice and to vote and to share their experience with us, any experiences or expertise they may bring from other countries," she said.

But for skeptics like Dorothy Brizill, a longtime civic activist, expanding the franchise to legal permanent residents could diminish a right that she said has been closely linked to U.S. citizenship.

"These legislation is particularly sensitive and of concern to those individuals, both black and white, who are aware of the long historical struggle to secure the right to vote for all American citizens," she said, referring to the fight for civil rights. "For many, the right to vote is the essence of citizenship."

Despite that concern, Brizill said she was more worried about whether the D.C. Board of Elections would be able to implement the bill. That concern was shared by Clifford Tatum, the head of the board, who said that allowing legal permanent residents to vote would create a number of "administrative and logistical hurdles" — including the need for a new voter registry for those residents.

"Allowing non-citizens to vote requires the creation and maintenance of two separate voter registration rolls, as well as a system for converting voters from the non-citizen roll to the citizen roll as they become naturalized citizens," he said. "We would also be required to conduct a separate voter registration roll maintenance process," he said.

Tatum also warned of other challenges, including the need for different ballots for citizens and legal permanent residents, especially since D.C. holds local and federal elections during the same cycle. In Takoma Park, which has allowed permanent residents to vote in local elections since 1992, the local contests are held in off years, avoiding any overlap.

He estimated that if the bill becomes law, the number of ballot styles used during general elections — which include local and federal offices — would double from 551 to 1,102.

To overcome those hurdles, Tatum warned that the elections board would require "significant financial resources." That would have to come above the additional funding he has requested to allow the elections board to full replace its voting machines.

But Council member Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1), which represents some of the neighborhoods where most of the city's immigrants live, said that the challenges shouldn't stop legislators from passing the bill.

"We always have to be careful in government and to lead when we see obstacles and when we see bureaucratic hurdles, to make sure they are not what stands between us and doing the right thing for our residents," she said.

Similar bills were considered and rejected in 1992 and 2004. If this version passes, it would mark another victory for immigrants in the nation's capital. Undocumented immigrants can currently receive driver's licenses, and the city has long limited its cooperation with the federal government on enforcement of immigration laws.

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