National Debates Surrounding Immigration and Voting to Converge at College Park City Council
The City Council of College Park, Maryland, is set to debate and vote on a controversial proposal regarding noncitizens’ right to vote in municipal elections. Rachel Chason, College Park Postpones Decision on Allowing Noncitizens to Vote, Wash. Post (Aug. 9, 2017), https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/md-politics/college-park-md-debates-whether-non-citizens-should-be-able-to-vote/2017/08/08/29bb7a64-7c54-11e7-83c7-5bd5460f0d7e_story.html?utm_term=.b6a952934a09. The proposal would amend the city’s charter to allow noncitizens, including residents with green cards, undocumented immigrants, and student-visa holders, to vote in the November elections for the city’s mayor and city council. See id.; see also John Fritze, Amid Immigration Battles, College Park Considers Giving Noncitizens Voting Rights, Balt. Sun (Aug. 6, 2017, 6:00 AM), http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/politics/blog/bs-md-immigrant-voting-20170805-story.html (discussing the controversy surrounding the proposed amendment).
The proposal to amend the city’s charter comes at a time when heated disputes regarding voting rights and immigration are roaring around the United States. In the 2013 case of Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court held section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to be unconstitutional. Shelby Cty. v. Holder, 133 S. Ct. 2612, 2631 (2013). Section 4(b) established a requirement that certain states, which had a history of discrimination in their elections, receive federal approval regarding their election laws. See Voting Rights Act of 1965, Pub. L. No. 89-110, § 4(b), 79 Stat. 437, 438. The loosening of federal approval for voting laws came in the midst of a movement to restrict voting within the states. See New Voting Restrictions in America, Brennan Ctr. for Just., http://www.brennancenter.org/new-voting-restrictions-america (last visited Dec. 6, 2017). Since the 2010 election, “23 states have new [voting] restrictions in effect.” Id. These restrictions include more restrictive voter ID laws, increased restrictions on voter registration, and the scaling back of early voting. Id.
One example of the current debate regarding voting restrictions is occurring in Texas. Texas was a state that was required to get federal approval for its election laws prior to Shelby County. Robert Barnes, After Losses on Voting Laws and Districting, Texas Turns to Supreme Court, Wash. Post (Aug. 27, 2017), https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/courts_law/after-losses-on-voting-laws-and-districting-texas-turns-to-supreme-court/2017/08/27/cf68fea8-89bc-11e7-a94f-3139abce39f5_story.html?utm_term=.f435a5a609a7. In four separate cases in August 2017, “federal judges . . . ruled that the Texas Legislature discriminated against minorities in drawing congressional and legislative districts, setting ID requirements for voters and even regulating who can assist voters for whom English is not their first language.” Id. The effect of these rulings, and of a similar Fourth Circuit ruling regarding North Carolina’s election laws, is that the legislature must make the laws less discriminatory. Id. These court cases illustrate the disputes surrounding all the various voter restrictions throughout the country. See id.
Another hot-button issue in today’s society is immigration. The current administration has made immigration a top priority, with often harsh rhetoric on the topic. David Nakamura, Trump’s Hardline Immigration Rhetoric Runs into Obstacles – Including Trump, Wash. Post (Feb. 17, 2017), https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trumps-hardline-immigration-rhetoric-runs-into-obstacles–including-trump/2017/02/17/37ba2218-f537-11e6-b9c9-e83fce42fb61_story.html?utm_term=.a32beb7ab20b. The harsh rhetoric of the Trump campaign, and now the administration, has also been increasingly turned into action, in the form of a travel ban. See Alicia Parlapiano & Anjali Singhvi, The Supreme Court Partially Allowed Trump’s Travel Ban. Who Is Still Barred?, N.Y. Times (July 19, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/06/29/us/politics/supreme-court-trump-travel-ban.html?mcubz=1. The President has also recently pardoned former sheriff Joe Arpaio, a man known for his cruel treatment of undocumented immigrants. Julie Hirschfeld Davis & Maggie Haberman, Trump Pardons Joe Arpaio, Who Became Face of Crackdown on Illegal Immigration, N.Y. Times (Aug. 25, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/25/us/politics/joe-arpaio-trump-pardon-sheriff-arizona.html?mcubz=1. The rhetoric and actions taken by the President have led to a national conversation regarding both illegal and legal immigration.
These national conversations regarding voters’ access to polls and immigration surround the current proposal to amend the city charter of College Park. See Fritze, supra. The proposal will be debated on September 5, 2017, before being put up for a vote on September 12. Maggie Astor, Maryland City May Let Noncitizens Vote, a Proposal with Precedent, N.Y. Times (Aug. 9, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/09/us/college-park-immigrant-voting-rights.html. Increased voting rights for noncitizens, even if only at the municipal level, not only expresses a stance against the administration’s rhetoric and actions on immigration, but also bucks the trend among states to restrict access to the polls. This follows a trend in Maryland, as ten smaller municipalities within the state have passed similar measures. Id. The idea of noncitizens voting in elections does have its roots in American history. Id. For the first 150 years following the American Revolution, forty states allowed noncitizens to vote in elections “in some form, at some point.” Id. Due to federal law, however, noncitizens are barred from participating in national elections. Id.
Advocates for the change argue that all residents of the city ought to have a voice when it comes to local elections. Id. Local officials implement policy regarding “trash pickup, snow removal and equipment for the parks.” Id. Residents who pay property and income taxes should also have a voice in those local matters, advocates say. Id. Meanwhile, opponents argue that the proposal would “devalue citizenship” or “diminish the voting process.” Id.
The potential amendment is of note, as it illustrates the American ideals of federalism. The federal government may pursue one agenda with regard to immigration and voting rights, while states and municipalities may pursue separate agendas.
*Connor Smith is a second-year law student at the University of Baltimore School of Law, where he currently serves as a staff editor for Law Review. Connor is also a member of the Royal Graham Shannonhouse III Honor Society
The amendment fell short of the six votes required to amend the city charter, with four members voting in favor, three against, and one abstention. Pamela Wood, College Park Vote on Noncitizen Voting Rights Was Insufficient, City Says, Balt. Sun (Sept. 16, 2017, 12:40 PM), http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/politics/bs-md-college-park-voting-20170916-story.html.