Senate Committee Punts Decision On Non-Citizen Voting Until 2020

May 13, 2019

State lawmakers are tapping the brakes on legislation that would expand voting rights in Montpelier and Brattleboro.

On Town Meeting Day, voters in Montpelier gave overwhelming approval to a ballot measure that would have made the capital city the first in Vermont to allow non-citizens to vote in municipal elections.

Voters in Brattleboro, meanwhile, passed a charter change that would let 16 and 17 year old residents vote in city elections.

Vermont law, however, requires the Legislature to approve municipal charter changes. And state lawmakers have decided to block action this year on legislation that would have allowed the revisions to go into effect.

Grand Isle Sen. Dick Mazza said Monday that the Senate doesn’t have time to fully vet the “controversial” proposal in Montpelier.  

“In the past charter changes have always - usually they’re rubber stamped, and it’s pretty simple,” said Mazza. “This one I think there was a feeling that because it was kind of controversial and time was limited, we had to make decision, and we thought we’d give it … until next session.”

"[The] Montpelier community said unequivocally that these folks are citizens of our community, and Montpelier should have the right to run its affairs in that capacity the way it sees fit." — Montpelier City Clerk John Odum

Mazza is vice-chairman of the five-person Senate Rules Committee that decided to defer action on the Montpelier charter change until 2020.

The committee chairman, Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, wasn't immediately available for an interview Monday. But Mazza said the committee's decision does not necessarily reflect opposition to the non-citizen voting measure.

“No one really said anything negative or positive about the issue,” Mazza said. “It was an issue that … do we have to do it this year? Was it necessary to do it this year?”

Montpelier City Clerk John Odum said the decision by the rules committee “will not go over well with the citizens of Montpelier.”

“I mean, I’m very disappointed and I know folks in Montpelier are disappointed,” Odum said Monday.

Odum also questioned Mazza’s characterization of the charter change as “controversial.” Residents of Montpelier approved the proposed charter change by a two-to-one margin in March. Last month, the Vermont House approved legislation that would have allowed the charter change to take effect by a vote of 95 to 46.

“So I’m not exactly sure what the concern about controversy is,” Odum said. “I’m sure it’s just because there are folks in the Senate, as there were in the House, who are not in favor of it.”

Odum said he’s worried that the pockets of opposition that compelled the rules committee to delay action on the charter change in 2019 could sink the proposal when it resurfaces in 2020.

“Certainly if there’s not political will to do it now, there may not be will to do it in an election year, if they’re concerned about the controversial nature of it,” Odum said.

Experts on constitutional law told house lawmakers earlier this year that there are no constitutional issues posed by the proposed charter change, which would grant voting rights only to non-citizens residing lawfully in Montpelier.

“Montpelier community said unequivocally that these folks are citizens of our community, and Montpelier should have the right to run its affairs in that capacity the way it sees fit,” Odum said. “They own property here. They have kids in the school. They’re members of the community in every possible measurable way, except that they aren’t given the opportunity to vote on their local taxes, or vote on who represents them on city council, and that’s all that this is about.”

Bradford Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas, who chairs the House Committee on Government Operations, confirmed Monday that legislation dealing with the proposed charter change in Brattleboro also won’t get a vote this year.

“I think it was felt by the committee that we should take a little time to take some more testimony on it," Copeland-Hanzas said.

Brattleboro Rep. Emilie Kornheiser says it’s a disappointing setback for a citywide effort to foster civic engagement among its teenage residents.

“I think it’s a really exciting opportunity for our youth to practice a really valuable skill, for them to get connected to their community," Kornheiser said.

While it’s rare for the legislature to thwart charter changes approved by a municipal electorate, it is not unprecedented.

In 2014, voters in Burlington approved a charter change that would have created a number of new restrictions on gun ownership in the city. But lawmakers declined to hold a vote on legislation that would have allowed the charter change to go into effect.

The Vermont League of Cities and Towns is pushing for legislation that would make it easier for towns to get legislative sign-off on proposed charter changes. The bill would create a new legislative commission to vet and approve proposed charter changes, instead of requiring them to pass through both chambers of the legislature.

Voters in Montpelier and Brattleboro may yet get legislative go-ahead for the proposed charter changes. Mazza said the Senate will take up the Montpelier charter change next year. And Copeland-Hanzas said she intends to revisit the Brattlebro charter change in 2020.

“I think it’s  a great idea to bring 16 and 17 year olds into the habit of voting while they’re still living at home with their parents, because it’s really hard for an 18 year old who’s maybe out on their own for the first time to embark on that habit of voting," Copeland-Hanzas said.

For now at least though, non-citizens in Montpelier, and 16 and 17 year olds in Brattleboro, will again have to sit out the next round of elections in their cities.

UPDATE: This story was updated at 3:30 p.m. to include comments from Sarah Copeland-Hanzas and Emilie Kornheiser