WASHINGTON — Officials in College Park are weighing a plan that would make their city the largest in Maryland to give undocumented immigrants a right to vote in local elections, a long-standing practice elsewhere in the state that has drawn new scrutiny amid the simmering national debate over immigration.
The Prince George's County city, home of the flagship University of Maryland campus and some 30,000 residents, is considering a measure to let noncitizens cast ballots for mayor and City Council — making it the latest target in a movement that has had more success in Maryland than anywhere else in the United States.
College Park officials are debating the charter amendment after a divisive national election in which immigration played a prominent part. Many left-leaning cities, including Baltimore, are now at odds with President Donald J. Trump's initial efforts to fulfill a campaign promise to crack down on immigration violations.
Supporters of the College Park measure say local elections center on trash collection, snow removal and other municipal services that affect people regardless of their citizenship status. The proposal, like those already approved in other small Maryland cities and towns, would not allow undocumented immigrants to vote for president, senator, congressman or governor.
"These are folks who have a significant stake in our community, and who rely on the facilities in our city," said College Park City Councilwoman Christine Nagle, who is sponsoring the measure."To me, it just made sense."
Opponents say immigrants — even those in the country legally, such as green-card holders — should not be able to have a say in the direction of the community until they complete the process of becoming a citizen.
"On a personal level, I do not agree that noncitizens should be voting," College Park City Councilwoman Mary C. Cook said. Still, Cook said she will listen to her constituents before making a decision on the measure.
Jeff Werner, who advocates tighter restrictions on immigration with the group Help Save Maryland, said people who are in the country legally should have a voice in their communities, but if they are not citizens, their participation should not extend as far as voting.
Werner said he felt even more strongly that undocumented immigrations should go nowhere near a voting booth.
"What gives them that privilege?" Werner asked.
Ten municipalities in Montgomery and Prince George's counties allow noncitizens to vote in local elections. Voters in Takoma Park, the liberal enclave in Montgomery County, narrowly approved a referendum in 1991 to become one of the first to allow the practice in Maryland.
Though Takoma Park is perhaps the best-known community allowing immigrants to vote, it was preceded by others. Barnesville — a small town near Sugarloaf Mountain in Montgomery County — has allowed noncitizens to vote since 1918. Somerset, also in Montgomery County, approved noncitizen voting in 1976.
But the number of Maryland communities adopting the idea has surged in recent months. Hyattsville in Prince George's County approved immigrant voting last year.
Weeks later, Mount Rainier, also in Prince George's County, backed the idea.
The proposal in College Park, like those in Takoma Park and elsewhere, does not distinguish between legal permanent residents and undocumented immigrants.
Supporters say that's by design.
"We very intentionally made it so that we did not have questions about citizenship status," said Patrick Paschall, a former member of the Hyattsville council who championed the legislation there. "It undermines the premise of noncitizen voting to try to draw a distinction."
Analysts say Maryland jurisdictions have been able to embrace the concept in greater numbers than in other states in part because the Maryland Constitution gives local governments more latitude to organize their own elections.
Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat, said support for noncitizen voting here has also been driven by the large numbers of diplomatic staff who work in Washington and live in the Maryland suburbs.
Raskin wrote about the phenomenon as a constitutional law professor at American University, but he has not been associated with the movement as a member of Congress.
"When the nation began, there was no national definition of voting rights," Raskin said. "It was completely up to the states, and what mattered was the property-ownership qualification, the race qualification and the gender qualification."
In other words, state laws required voters to be white, male property owners. Citizenship did not come into play.
From the time of the American Revolution to the nation's westward expansion, federal officials embraced noncitizen suffrage as a way to encourage settlement in new territories. At least 40 states allowed immigrants to vote at some point, said Ron Hayduk, a political scientist at San Francisco State University, and some even extended the vote to federal and state elections.
"The rallying cry of the Revolution was 'No taxation without representation,' " Hayduk said. "For the Founding Fathers, it was not your citizenship status that defined who could vote."
But the idea has also been controversial for much of the nation's history. Southern states were so enraged by the practice in the years leading up to the Civil War that Confederate officials used the first article of their constitution to make citizenship a requirement for voting.
Anti-foreign sentiment after World War I led many states to strike immigrant voting laws that had been in place for decades.
The District of Columbia has repeatedly considered allowing noncitizens to vote, but ultimately decided against it. New York City allowed noncitizens to vote in school board elections until 2002.
Immigrant voting was thrust onto the national stage again this year when Trump claimed, without evidence, that millions of people voted illegally for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.The president has created a commission on voting integrity that is ostensibly looking into voter fraud.
In Maryland, the conservative legal group Judicial Watch sued Montgomery County last month after finding more registered voters than citizens of voting age — potential evidence, the group said, of fraud.
Montgomery County officials have said the group failed to note thousands of 16- and 17-year-olds who have been allowed to pre-register but are not yet old enough to cast a ballot.
Judicial Watch did not respond to a request for comment.
Debate over noncitizen voting can quickly become heated. But despite the fury on both sides of the issue, few immigrants are taking advantage of the ability to vote when it is granted, several local officials said.
Only a dozen people on Hyattsville's local voter rolls — the list on which the city records noncitizens and others ineligible to vote in state elections — cast a ballot in the May election. About a dozen people turned out to speak at a public hearing on the College Park measure last month, but none of them said they would be directly affected by the proposal.
Supporters pointed to several factors to explain the apparent lack of interest. Local elections tend to draw fewer voters than state and federal elections. And people living in the country illegally are likely to be hesitant to add their name to a public voter registration list.
"The community is scared of getting involved," said Antonia Surco, a 65-year-old immigrant from Peru who lives in Montgomery County, is working toward citizenship for herself, and helped push the Hyattsville measure.
"Politically, on the federal level," she said, "we are facing a crisis in the community."
In Takoma Park, about 300 people are registered to vote in local elections because they are ineligible to register through the normal process, compared with roughly 11,000 voters overall.
Maryland Policy & Politics
Takoma Park City Clerk Jessie Carpenter said the city maintains a separate voter registration list for people who cast ballots in local elections alone. The voting process is also entirely separate – and city elections traditionally have not taken place at the same time as state and federal elections, so there is no opportunity for noncitizens to vote in a state or federal race.
The College Park City Council is set to take up the measure Tuesday. Nagle, the councilwoman backing the effort, said it is possible the vote could be delayed until later this summer.
Julio Murillo, a policy analyst with the immigration advocacy group CASA, supports the measure.
"Whenever you open up elections to noncitizens, what you're really doing is sending a strong message that you celebrate your diversity," he said. "You start to develop and encourage a practice of civic engagement. That transcends generations."
An earlier version misstated the voting process in Takoma Park. The Sun regrets the error.