A bill to allow noncitizens to vote in municipal elections in Winooski could potentially allow out-of-towners to arrive just before an election and participate. The bill got held up Tuesday on the virtual floor of the House of Representatives due to multiple controversies.
After lengthy debate, the bill, H.227, was sent back to House Education Committee so members could re-examine its potential impacts on state budgets, especially regarding the state’s education fund.
To find out just how easy this bill could make it for a non-Winooski resident to show up and vote, Rep. Woodman Page, R-Newport, put forth a hypothetical scenario to colleagues.
“So, Madame Speaker, you could actually arrive in Winooski today and vote tomorrow?” he asked.
The presenter of the bill, Rep. Hal Colston, D-Winooski, confirmed it to be so.
“If you make Winooski your home and that’s what you attest to, yes,” Colston said, speaking for the Committee on Government Operations, which approved the legislation on an 8-3 vote..
Page asked Colston how long someone has to be a resident in order to be able to vote. In response, Colston said the requirement is to take the oath and to confirm to the clerk that the person aims to live in the city and perform the civic responsibilities that come with being a resident.
“It’s a matter of declaring that your residency is here in the city, and of course that you can provide documentation that you are a legal resident,” Colston said, noting that if passed into law, H.227 would allow noncitizen voters to vote on a variety of municipal matters.
Rep. Charles “Butch” Shaw, R-Pittsford, asked if these voters could be voting on school, town, or highway budgets that will contain state funding. “Would they technically be voting on state funding when they are answering these local questions?” he asked.
Colston said yes.
“They will have the privilege to vote on all matters as all other legal residents,” Colston said. “They will have the right to vote on all local issues that pertain to the City of Winooski as well as the school board.”
Upon hearing that, Shaw said he could not then support the proposal.
“I really don’t have much of a problem in local elections on local issues, but in my opinion, we are spilling out beyond local questions when we start voting on items that have state funding in it,” Shaw said.
Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, said she voted in favor of a similar charter change for the city of Montpelier, but added that the proposed charter change for Winooski was different.
“Because of the statewide education fund, what individual cities vote on their budget has a very direct impact on the budgets of other cities,” she said. “That is no longer a city-only impact, it impacts other cities. For that reason, I can’t support this charter change.”
Rep. Scott Beck, R-St. Johnsbury, echoed those concerns.
“It would be unwise and possibly unconstitutional to allow a different set of voter criteria on one district than another district,” he said.
Rep, Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, agreed, saying, “I think we’re getting into some concerning territory on this one.”
Other representatives, including Democrats and independents, chimed in with similar concerns.
Rep. Scott Campbell, D-St. Johnsbury, wondered if even non-school-related municipal budgets voted on by noncitizens in Winooski would be fair or unfair to the rest of the state.
“Is there a difference between how municipal projects might affect state funding and the way school budgets affect statewide education funding?” he said.
Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, said she saw a constitutional problem with the Winooski proposal.
“Unfortunately we have a situation here, in which a number of my colleagues are doing a great job of articulating, and that is our constitution says that every person who is a citizen of the United States can vote in our state elections,” she said. “… This is really really difficult for me. … I would like them to be able to vote, but the constitutional issue here is quite troubling to me.”
As a potential solution, some lawmakers suggested creating an amendment to the bill to prohibit noncitizen voting on the school budget, since that money is closely tied into state funds.