Editor’s note: This commentary is by Deb Billado, chairwoman of the Vermont GOP.
We have a constitution for a reason. Our Founders, both in Vermont and nationally, knew the dangers of democracy was that it was given to the passions of mobs, and could easily go awry. The Constitution creates boundaries that can be over turned — but not easily. It relies on much more than an opportunistic legislative victory.
Every person of the full age of eighteen years who is a citizen of the United States, having resided in this State for the period established by the General Assembly and who is of a quiet and peaceable behavior, and will take the following oath or affirmation, shall be entitled to all the privileges of a voter of this state – Vermont Constitution
In the coming week, we may see the Vermont Legislature bumping up against the guard rail of the constitution. A few weeks ago Republican Gov. Phil Scott vetoed a bill that would have granted non-citizen voting rights to two of Vermont’s towns. The quote above from the Vermont Constitution seems to tie suffrage directly to U.S. citizenship. As much as Republicans support the concept of local control, we cannot allow local municipalities to violate the constitution. We take our oaths of office seriously.
The people who live in Vermont now, who through no fault of their own happened to have been born elsewhere do have a right to pursue the right to vote. But we believe the way they ought to achieve that is by going through the naturalization process the way that every other immigrant who votes today had to do. By passing these charter changes, we create a short-cut for some Vermonters, and not others.
Many European countries that have attempted this have found that it becomes a constitutional issue. In 1990 the German Constitutional Court declared local voting-rights legislation passed in the German State of Lander to be in violation of the German Constitution. In 1992 the French Constitutional Council made a similar finding. Italy passed legislation in 1998, but the required constitutional amendment was never adopted. Around the world there is a precedent that this kind of change usually requires a change of the constitution. By definition that means it is currently unconstitutional.
One of the oddities of the Vermont education finance system includes the issue that “local” elections for school budgets all have a statewide impact. The individual spending of every school district gets pooled together, and the state uses those budgets to set what has an effect of a statewide property tax rate (more commonly referred to as the “yield”). So while some elections, like for town clerk have an affect on only the local municipality, things like school budgets get a little more complicated. It’s the kind of issue that deserves more careful consideration and shouldn’t be forced through on a two-day veto session.
A potential danger of adding non-citizens to the voter rolls is that towns will have to create a second voter list. By creating a “citizen” list and a “non-citizen” list (both of which are required to be a matter of public record), we would end up creating a non-citizen registry. While today there is little threat of something like this being abused, we can only imagine how helpful it would have been someone like FDR when he rounded up Japanese Americans to put them in internment camps.
A better solution is to offer to help our immigrant neighbors not get put on a special separate voting list and potentially making them a target, but instead help them to navigate the process of becoming a full citizen with complete local, statewide and national voting rights.
Either way, make sure to call your state rep and your senator and make sure they are going to support Gov. Scott’s veto and address a number of the practical and constitutional problems with these current attempts to violate citizen voting.