Editor’s note: This commentary is by John Odum, the city clerk for Montpelier.
There are a few reasons I stepped back from statewide politics to run for Montpelier city clerk. While there are good people doing good work to be sure, the cynicism can be overwhelming at times.
I was reminded of that this week when the governor, against expectations, vetoed the charter change approved by Montpelier voters to allow noncitizen residents of our city to participate in their own community’s democracy.
But Tuesday, June 1, was a historic day of sorts. With this veto, the governor set a record for most vetoes by any Vermont governor. It’s sad that the record was set on the backs of immigrants — yet another blow to a community bloodied and bruised by so many others.
A quick update for those who haven’t followed the issue. Montpelier voters wanted to follow the lead of many other cities in the U.S. and allow all legal residents to vote on city issues, and city issues only. For noncitizens to vote in state or federal elections is, of course, unconstitutional. Voting in town elections is not, and was in fact the norm in the early days of the nation.
Our founding fathers, founding fathers’ children and grandchildren all voted alongside non-U.S. citizens without a second thought — and it’s because these residents are in every other way full members of the community. They pay property taxes, have kids in school, and are often very civically active.
The voters of Montpelier invited these immigrants to enjoy full membership in their community, regardless of what stage — if any — they were at in the national citizenship process. The governor slammed the door shut on them. And indeed on all the voters in both Montpelier and Winooski, which had its own charter change on the issue vetoed.
It is no small deal for the state to deploy the heavy hand of government in this way. The general approach has been to allow communities to run their own affairs as they see fit. Hearing about the veto, I was taken right back to feeling overwhelmed by the cynicism in government, as the veto — despite the governor’s associated comments — was cynical indeed.
Why do I say this? First, I reached out to the governor’s office to have a conversation after the charter’s passage. Sadly — and, in retrospect, not unexpectedly — I heard no response. There was to be no thoughtful discussion or deliberation on this topic. It’s reasonable to conclude that other matters drove the decision.
This was driven home by the governor’s stated reasoning behind the veto, which just doesn’t stand up to even casual scrutiny.
First, he stated the Legislature should “revisit the issue of noncitizen voting in a more comprehensive manner.” The Legislature has looked at this issue over two sessions. It was discussed in the House Government Operations Committee twice. The Senate Government Operations Committee twice. The Senate Rules Committee. It was voted on twice on the floor of the House over two sessions. That’s pretty comprehensive.
Second, he tasked the Legislature to “develop a statewide policy or a uniform template.” Clearly the process exists already. It’s the process of amending (or creating) a charter. It is a thorough, vote-driven process that serves the state quite well. Pretending that process doesn’t exist is perhaps his most bizarre rationale of all.
The decision that was made by Montpelier voters was who to include as full members of our community. The governor — and anyone looking for a moment at the issue — knows that any attempt to create some special statewide process would be a nonstarter. In fact, it was a key point in its favor that this proposal was anything but an attempt by my community to tell other communities how to run their affairs.
And finally, there is the argument that “allowing a highly variable town-by-town approach to municipal voting creates inconsistency.” This wasn’t an issue for him in signing the recent election bill that would allow towns to decide for themselves whether or not to implement mail-in voting — a process that additionally impacts state and federal elections. It’s not an issue that my office is open for more hours for in-person early voting than many, many other towns. This “inconsistency” argument was not a reasonable objection then, and it’s not one now.
No, this was no more than an easy political move to help shore up support to his base, which he at times struggles with. The calculation is that simply too few people would care enough to cause him any problem when all is said and done.
But let’s be clear. The Montpelier voters considered this proposal “comprehensively” and gave their consent. The Declaration of Independence says that governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
That’s what the governor just vetoed.
All of this serves to make an important point. When we think about healthy democracy, we think about policies that expand the franchise and bring more people to the polls, and rightfully so. What we also need to remember are the things that drive people away from the polls.
And cynicism is at the top of that list.
But nevertheless, we in Montpelier can be a very persistent bunch. So stay tuned.