Editor’s note: On Tuesday night, the College Park City Council announced it would allow non-U.S. citizens to vote in municipal elections. On Friday, College Park officials wrote in a news release to media and residents that there were not enough supporting votes to adopt the city charter amendment. As of June, changes to the city charter require six affirmative votes, rather than a simple majority. Four council members voted in favor of the amendment, which was not enough for it to pass.
After more than four hours of discussion, two split votes and heated exchanges among some 40 residents, the College Park City Council voted Tuesday night to allow noncitizens to vote in municipal elections.
The charter amendment passed with its original wording with a vote of 4-3, with one abstention from District 1 Councilman Fazlul Kabir.
The charter amendment, which was first introduced at a June 13 meeting, has seen an influx of resident comment. Residents clashed at a July 11 public hearing, and hundreds have sent emails to the council about the amendment. Its supporters say residents who pay local taxes should be allowed to cast a vote, while others say this privilege should be reserved for those who have received U.S. citizenship.
The amendment will not come into effect until the 2019 elections.
The resident comments continued Tuesday night after Kabir moved to postpone considering the proposed amendment until after discussing the motion to approve an advisory referendum, and/or the motion to establish a voting rights commission that would seek to “review issues of voting rights for residents of the City of College Park,” according to the council agenda.
About 30 people waited in line when it came time to comment on the possible referendum or the voting rights commission option.
Emily Weant, who has been a College Park resident for about four years, said she thought the issue needed further discussion.
“I feel that it’s unfair to rush it through,” Weant said, adding that “it’s a violation of federal law” as the audience clapped. “It should come to a vote on the ballot.”
Todd Larsen, a District 2 resident who has lived in College Park for about two years, said allowing all city residents to vote would be a positive change, noting that other municipalities have done so and protected their voting lists.
In December, Hyattsville became the first city in Prince George’s County to allow noncitizens to vote. Mt. Rainier, Takoma Park and Glen Echo are among at least 10 municipalities in Maryland to adopt similar policies.
Larsen said the problem with a nonbinding referendum is that it’s a way to “delay and deny rights to people.” He noted that the people whose rights are at stake can’t vote, and he feels it will increase anti-immigrant sentiment.
There was “nothing to gain by [having] a voting rights commission,” said District 2 resident Elaine Grant, who has lived in College Park for about two years.
“This issue has been before the council for three months,” Grant said. “We elected you to protect and advance the civil rights of our residents.”
Beth DeBosky, a District 1 resident who has lived in College Park for about 14 years, said if voting rights were extended to noncitizens, the city would be diminishing the amount of work that naturalized citizens have done who cherish their U.S. citizenship.
“Anyone who supports it should frankly be ashamed of themselves,” DeBosky said.
Amid the applause of the audience after residents voiced positions from both sides, Mayor Patrick Wojahn noted that the comment period was “not a contest of who can clap the loudest.”
Riley Lynn Nairn, a senior Spanish major at the University of Maryland, said they oppose all of the amendments to the current charter proposal, or putting it to a voting rights commission.
“Justice delayed is justice denied,” they said. “Putting up people’s civil rights to a vote by people whose rights who are not being determined is immoral.” Nairn added that they were “disgusted by, not surprised by, the amount of xenophobia and white supremacists in [the] room tonight.”
Juan Cruz, a Peruvian immigrant who has a green card and has lived in College Park since March 2016, spoke up for noncitizens.
“Please let noncitizens have a voice in this community,” Cruz said.
Arun Ivatury, a child of naturalized citizens who were originally from India, said those who vote against this charter amendment or put it to referendum aren’t racists or xenophobes, but said they’ve missed an opportunity to join fellow Maryland cities who have expanded voting rights.
“The common thread of this, in my view, is they want a better life,” Ivatury said.
After residents finished commenting on the possible referendum option or the voting rights commission option, councilmembers weighed in, and then it was put to a vote. The council was split, 4-4, leaving the choice to pursue either of these options to Wojahn. “To me, expanding access to the right to vote in our city expands community voice,” Wojahn said, voting no to Kabir’s proposal motion to postpone.
Kabir then moved to propose a change to the charter amendment, one that would extend voting rights just to green card holders.
“This amendment is to bring a kind of compromise between the two extremes,” Kabir said, noting the tension in the community. “Hopefully this will give something to both parties.”
About 11 people initially stood in line to comment on the proposed change to the charter amendment, and more joined as the comment period continued. Four residents were in favor of the change to the charter amendment, while all others who spoke were opposed.
Robert O’Brien, a District 1 resident who has lived in College Park for about 27 years, was one of the residents who supported the green card change.
People who have taken the effort to pursue getting a green card are “more deserving” of voting rights, O’Brien said.
Cruz spoke up again in the green card change comment period and was not in favor it.
“This is all we know,” Cruz said. “We want to see this country succeed.”
The meeting moved to council comment. District 2 Councilman P.J. Brennan said the city “should not compromise for the sake of compromising.”
“Limiting this to green card holders creates more restrictive voter laws,” Brennan said, among other council comments.
The matter was put to a vote, and was once again split, 4-4. Wojahn voted against the change, and the council moved back to consider the charter amendment as it was originally written.
Kabir said he was “disappointed” they “lost” the two opportunities placed to vote tonight. He said he’s probably the only council member not from this country, and shared his experience becoming a naturalized citizen.
He got choked up toward the end of his comment.
“Let’s bring the community together,” Kabir said. “Nobody wins tonight, unfortunately.”
The charter amendment was put to a vote. It passed. The attendees, some standing, burst into applause. Noncitizens will be able to vote in College Park elections, as of 2019.