AUGUSTA — A proposed constitutional amendment to prohibit non-citizens from casting ballots in Maine elections spurred an emotional debate Friday over voting rights, history and the tone of today’s political climate.

Last year, Portland’s mayor and a City Council member proposed allowing legally present non-citizens to participate in city elections in recognition of civic and economic contributions of the city’s growing immigrant community. While that controversial proposal was shelved amid growing controversy, two Republican lawmakers proposed changing Maine’s Constitution to prevent the issue from ever resurfacing.

On Friday, members of the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee split along party lines over whether a constitutional amendment was even necessary given that state law already says it is a felony offense for non-citizens to vote. Those bills, L.D. 186 and L.D. 1372, will go to the House and Senate for consideration.

But tensions rose in the committee room as lawmakers questioned the patriotism of their colleagues and veered into partisan issues such as “voter ID,” illegal immigration and voter suppression.

“If we are having this debate here and this goes to the ballot box, you can just imagine how ugly it is going to be out there,” said Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, who strongly opposed sending the constitutional amendment proposals to voters statewide.

Current state law says that a person must be a U.S. citizen to vote in “any election” in a municipality in Maine. But last year’s proposal from Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling and City Councilor Pious Ali to allow non-citizens to cast ballots in races for mayor, City Council and school board reopened debate over the issue.

Both of the proposed amendments would specify that “only a citizen of the United States may vote” in elections, although they differ slightly in wording. Neither appears likely to garner the two-thirds support in the House and Senate – both have Democratic majorities — necessary to send them to voters statewide.

Friday’s discussion began with lawmakers talking about the importance of citizenship and the privilege of voting. And there appeared to be near-unanimous agreement among Democrats and Republicans that only citizens should be able to vote in Maine.

“Voting is the reward and incentive for becoming a citizen,” said Rep. John Andrews, R-Paris. “We need to protect that and keep it special for those immigrants who work hard to become American citizens.”

Yet emotions flared when Democrats voted to reject both proposed amendments because, they said, it’s already a felony offense for non-citizens to vote, punishable by up to five years in prison.

“I just feel like you guys don’t care how important it is to be a citizen,” said Rep. Josanne Dolloff, R-Rumford, the granddaughter of immigrants who became citizens and fought in American wars. “I just feel like everyone who voted against this is saying it’s not important.”

Sen. Scott Cyrway, R-Albion, fought back tears as he spoke about his relatives who fought in the military and about the veterans who routinely come before the committee.

“We are dealing with people that have given their lives for our freedoms,” Cyrway said. “It is so important that we not give up our citizenship.”

Such comments frustrated Democratic members such as Rep. Janice Cooper, D-Yarmouth.

“My families have fought in the wars and so forth,” Cooper said. “None of us view this vote as a test of patriotism. The question is: Is the law already clear? And if it is, aren’t we just confusing matters?”

Hickman, whose father served with the elite, all-black Tuskegee Airmen during World War II, objected to comments from Rep. Sheldon Hanington, R-Lincoln, who said Maine needs a “voter ID” law requiring voters to show photo identification to ensure non-citizens are not voting.

“My father … was a citizen when he fought for this country and could not vote when he returned from fighting for this country,” Hickman said. “It took the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to ensure that he and others like him could vote. And still, because of voter ID laws, some cannot vote (even though) they are citizens of this country.”

Hickman also said said that the “soul of our nation is sick” and that “some of the attacks on our Constitution are coming from the highest office in the land, not from non-citizens.”

In addition to the non-citizens voting proposal, the committee also held work sessions on a series of bills related to voting procedures.

The committee was divided along party lines — with Democrats in support and Republicans opposed — on a bill, L.D. 1626, to hold presidential primaries rather than caucuses in Maine. But the committee tabled for later consideration a broader bill that would hold a presidential primary in March and to used ranked-choice voting in presidential primaries with more than three candidates.

 

 

 


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