As the Trump administration tries to make it more difficult for Americans to vote, at least one city in Maryland is expanding ballot access in a significant way: College Park, MD wants immigrants to help shape local policy by voting.
On Tuesday evening, the College Park City Council gave non-citizens the opportunity to vote in municipal elections starting in 2019. During a four-hour debate which allowed public comment, the council passed a charter amendment on a 4-to-3 vote, with one abstention from a councilman who wanted to delay the vote. The measure now allows non-citizens — including undocumented immigrants, those holding student visas, and green card holders — to vote for the city’s officials, including mayor and council members. The measure would allow College Park residents to have their voices heard for local issues like trash pick up, snow removal, and other municipal services.
Immigrants are still prohibited from voting in federal elections (for the president) and in state-wide elections (for congressional members and governors).
“These are folks who have a significant stake in our community, and who rely on the facilities in our city,” College Park City Councilwoman Christine Nagle, who cosponsored the measure, said. “To me, it just made sense.”
This issue resonates in College Park, a college town that includes a large University of Maryland campus. Roughly 20 percent of the town’s 30,000 resident are foreign-born, a figure that includes naturalized citizens. With Tuesday’s vote, College Park becomes the 11th municipality in Maryland to allow immigrants to be participate in local elections. Nearby Takoma Park approved a similar referendum in 1991. Barnesville, Md. has allowed noncitizen voting since 1918.
Voting advocates say non-citizens should be able to participate in municipal issues because they, too, contribute state and local taxes and have children in the school system. Within Maryland, immigrants helped lead the state’s growth in industries like information, science, and medical fields where they disproportionately fill work in highly skilled occupations such as doctors, nurses, teachers, computer specialists, and researchers, according to a 2012 commission to study the impact of immigrants in Maryland.
For detractors—some of whom are themselves immigrants—it’s an issue of devotion to America. In a June interview with the University of Maryland’s The Diamondback student reporter Leah Brennan, one naturalized citizen opposed the measure because he felt voting should be reserved for citizens.
“I’m not for it at all,” she said. “I think that voting is for people who know what citizenship is all about, what it means to be a citizen of the United States and [what] the privileges are, and what the responsibilities are.”
For proponents, the measure could have the effect of sending a strong message of openness to the immigrant community.
“This is a courageous step in the right direction, it fosters inclusiveness and builds a stronger democracy within the City of College Park,” said Gustavo Torres, the executive director of the immigrant advocacy group CASA de Maryland.
“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,” Torres added. “The City of College Park has just issued a declaration that everyone is welcome to the table of their community family.”