While many University of Maryland students left College Park for the summer, the City Council tackled multiple initiatives and proposals. Here are the main takeaways.
Proposal for non-citizens to vote in municipal elections
At a June 13 meeting, the City Council introduced a possible amendment to the city’s charter to eliminate U.S. citizenship as a voter registration requirement for local elections and authorize a supplementary city voter registration list, which would enable non-citizens to vote in municipal elections.
Residents clashed at a July 11 public hearing for the amendment, with supporters of the proposal claiming citizens who pay local taxes should be allowed to cast a vote, while others said this privilege should be reserved for those who have earned U.S. citizenship.
The final vote was scheduled for Aug. 8 but was removed from the agenda after officials said they needed more time.
Prince George’s County Police were asked to attend the meeting after council members received harassing calls and emails from people angry about the amendment, Mayor Patrick Wojahn said.
The proposal will be revisited at the September 12 meeting. But, before that, there will be a discussion about it at the September 5 work session.
“I think they’re going to be talking about a couple of different things,” City Clerk Janeen Miller said of the work session. “I believe one of them will be whether to put the question to a referendum, and I think the other will be possible amendments to the charter amendment as it is currently written.”
The referendum would be a non-binding advisory question used to inform the council in their deliberations and help them gauge voter opinions, Miller said. There are currently no planned future actions.
District 2 Councilman P.J. Brennan said he personally does “not agree with bringing a civil rights issue to a referendum.”
“When the majority have asked to make a decision for a minority group, civil rights referendums routinely tend to fail,” Brennan said. “The people at issue, the non-citizens, they can’t even vote on this particular issue if it’s to be brought to referendum … so, I do not support [it], and I do support allowing non-citizens — people who have non-citizenship status but who are, for all intents and purposes, residents of the College Park — [to] participate in our local elections.”
After the public hearing, the council decided to keep the record open for additional public comment.
Written comment on the proposal may be submitted to the council no later than 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017.
At a July 11 work session, the council discussed considerations surrounding at-large members, as well as longer and staggered terms.
District 4 Councilwoman Dustyn Kujawa suggested that each district have two council members: one at-large representative and one dedicated representative of their district. She also suggested that the at-large councilmembers and the mayor serve four-year terms, while the dedicated district representatives continue to serve two-year terms.
“Still, you have your dedicated representative to your district, so you get that one-on-one attention that you might need, and then you also have somebody you can reach out to that is at-large and you can have other discussions with, because a lot of our residents don’t reach out to other districts’ council members as it is now,” Kujawa said at the work session.
District 1 Councilwoman Christine Nagle said at the work session that she liked the proposal.
“I think it does a good job of bringing in the balance,” Nagle said. “And having staggered terms, with also allowing some longer terms for the folks, as [District 3 Councilwoman Stephanie] Stullich pointed out, that are going to have to do more work, because they’re going to be going to a larger area for voters.”
An ad hoc subcommittee — which is made up of Kujawa, the chair, as well as Wojahn, Nagle, District 4 Councilwoman Mary Cook and Student Liaison Chris Keosian — was organized to study the considerations surrounding at-large council members, longer terms and staggered terms, Miller said.
The subcommittee plans to go back and report to the council with some proposals to discuss, though it’s unknown when that will be right now, Miller said. The council wants to hold two public forums — one at City Hall, and one at Davis Hall — on whatever the recommendations are to “explain to residents what the proposals are that are being considered, and why they’re being considered,” Miller added.
After the forums, the council will regroup and decide how they want to move forward, and any decision would not be effective for the coming election on Nov. 7, she said.
The subcommittee has not met yet, Wojahn said Friday.
Absentee voting, and the potential of “no-excuse” absentee voting — where people can request an absentee ballot for any reason — also came up in the July 11 work session.
“We’re still looking at options for [absentee voting]. We’re exploring a couple different things, and there will be further discussions on that,” Wojahn said. “I don’t know if we’re going forward with anything before this year’s election. It certainly won’t be in place for this year’s election, but we are having ongoing discussions about it.”
It will be brought up again in the next “month or so,” Wojahn said, noting that he doesn’t think there’s a specific date set.
Alex Tobin, a junior government and politics major at this university who announced he is running for a District 2 seat earlier this month, thinks the city needs to “seriously reassess” its election policy, including the absentee ballot system, which he believes “may accidentally disenfranchise large portions of the population.”
“To receive an absentee ballot, a voter must either be absent on election day, be sick, be confined to an institution, have a death or serious illness in the family or attend a full-time academic institution not in College Park,” Tobin said. “This leaves out voters who are not technically leaving the city, but whose work makes it hard to get to the polls, so this affects low-income residents who cannot take a break from their jobs, [and] it also affects students that may have classes on Election Day.”
The Board of Election Supervisors does not recommend moving to no-excuse absentee voting for several reasons, they wrote in an Aug. 2 memo to the mayor and council.
Opponents say it is a misuse of the purpose of absentee voting — that a voter should be unable to get to the poll on election day — and that the extra expense is not justified. Opponents also cite potential for fraud and doubt it would increase voter participation, generally speaking, according to the memo.
However, the board is unanimously in favor of early voting, and believes it could be accommodated, but perhaps not for this year, the memo said.
CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story said the council would vote on a proposal allowing non-citizens to vote in local elections at a Sept. 12 meeting after discussing it at a Sept. 5 work session. The proposal will be discussed on Sept. 5 and will be revisited at the Sept. 12 meeting, but will not necessarily come to a vote. This story has been updated.