HYATTSVILLE – A two-year debate, filled with passion on both sides, has finally come to a conclusion after Hyattsville’s City Council unanimously voted to allow non-United States citizens to vote in municipal elections.
The city of Hyattsville is the first municipality in Prince George’s County and one of the first in Maryland to extend voting rights to non-citizens who live within city limits.
“It was a pretty surprising turnout to see that everybody voted for it. Aside from all the bickering that we had or the animosity we expressed before, to see everybody come around and support the motion speaks loudly to what the city is about and also the way this council works,” said Edouard Haba, one of the four motion-makers for the non-citizen voting amendment.
The specific legislation passed Monday night calls for an amendment to the city’s charter which redefines the qualifications to vote in a citywide election. Hyattsville has the authority to change voter qualifications through Article XI in the Constitution of Maryland.
This change to the city charter only affects the city of Hyattsville and does not allow non-citizens to vote in county, state or national elections.
“The mayor and city council amend the city charter to change the qualifications for registering as a voter in city elections so that (1) being a citizen of the United States is no longer a requirement to be a voter or a member of the board of elections and (2) residency for 30 days is sufficient provided the individual does not claim the right and vote elsewhere in the United States, or has not been found by a Court to be unable to communicate a desire to vote,” the amendment motion reads.
The process to pass the amendment took the council nearly two years. Non-citizen voting was part of the legislative package the city undertook in 2015 and had carried over into 2016. Throughout the time spent on the legislation the council heard numerous testimonies both for and against the change, with passionate people espousing each opinion.
The final amendment to the charter underwent several changes throughout the process, including the amount of a time a person must live in the city to qualify to vote; what documentation is necessary to register; and the logistics surrounding the issue since the legislation also called for a city-based voter registry and same-day voting.
“The amendment further establishes a voter registry separate from the state and county voter registry and further allows for same day registration of voters in city elections which will be effective on or before Jan. 1, 2019 and further extending the time for the Board of Supervisors of Elections to certify an election until 10 calendar days after the election,” the motion reads.
Despite changes, some residents are still wary of allowing non-citizens to vote in the city’s elections. Lee Ann Barlow, the daughter of Councilwoman Ruth Ann Frazier (who originally was an opponent of the amendment) echoed a sentiment that has been expressed throughout the process: she wanted the change to go to referendum.
“It is clear from several meetings ago that there (is) a large group of people that you all as council members haven’t gotten to because you were surprised that people actually came out and spoke and said ‘this isn’t right,’” Barlow said. “I think that you should let the people that elected you, unless they made a mistake in electing you all, let them have the right to decide whether they want non-citizens to vote.”
However Councilman Patrick Paschall, one of the motion makers, said several times throughout the legislative process that he had no intention of taking the amendment to referendum.
“I strongly believe that we shouldn’t put things like enfranchisement of populations on the referendum ballot. If that was true women would have never had the right to vote, people of color would have never had the right to vote in this country,” Paschall told The Sentinel in September.
At the same time, Councilman Joseph Solomon, who was also a motion-maker, said he has fielded complaints and worries from his residents as well, but said he believes this is the right step for the city.
“I don’t want them to feel left out or somehow their voice is diminished. That was something I continued to hear inside the chamber and folks who reached out to me,” Solomon said explaining that several veterans believe this motion works against their fight to keep foreign ideas out of the country. “This is building on the work that they have started. I think they fought for America to be a free country…and people move here because they recognize that and so its not then our position to say we’re going to slam the door shut and lock the rest of the world out of the opportunity for prosperity.”
Councilwoman Paula Perry, who with Frazier had formed the council opposition to non-citizen voting, voted in favor of the amendment Monday. She said she decided to “stop fighting” against the bill because “the clique has already spoken.”
Perry also emphasized that when she votes, she never brings her personal opinions into the matter. She said she votes wholly based upon the phone calls she receives and that is why she voted for amendment despite having reservations.
“You’re pitting a lot of neighbors against neighbors now and it’s sad,” she said.
Though Perry still expressed reservations about the change, Haba said he is proud of the work Hyattsville is doing and said this change to voter qualifications was needed and addresses the diversity of the city.
“This takes into account the reality of our city. We are an urban city, we live in a very diverse region with a lot of immigrants and people who are not necessarily citizens, so forgetting or not taking that element into account is just a disservice to the people living in the city,” he said.
Deni Taveras, the county councilwoman who represents District 2, also said she is proud of the city.
“I think this is very progressive for them for taking on this action. Its an important move because these are members of the community that actually feel the decisions (that the council) makes every single day, so they really should have a voice in the matter,” Taveras said.
Both Taveras and Solomon said they hope this idea will continue on throughout the county. In fact, the city of Mount Rainier will also consider adopting a similar policy allowing non-citizens to vote in their municipal election on Dec. 6.
The Hyattsville non-citizen charter amendment will go into effect 50 days after its adoption, which will be Jan. 24. Hyattsville’s next municipal election is May 2, 2017.