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How AG Janet Mills created a non-citizen voting problem for Gov. Janet Mills

A 2009 opinion from then-Attorney General Janet Mills set in motion an effort to allow non-citizens to vote in Portland, Maine that continues until this day, and creating a challenge that Governor Janet Mills will need to confront. Also pictured are the original sponsor of the proposal Sen. Justin Alfond (second to left) and current Portland Mayor and supporter of the non-citizen voting Ethan Strimling (second from right).

AUGUSTA – In 2009 the Maine Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee was presented a bill that would have allowed cities and towns in Maine to pass an ordinance to allow non-citizens to register and vote in municipal elections.

The impact of what happened next continues to reverberate in Maine politics a decade later.

Senator Justin Alfond (D – Portland), the sponsor of the non-citizen voting bill, sent a letter to Attorney General Janet Mills asking her for guidance as to the constitutionality of the idea to allow non-citizens to vote in municipal elections.

In a letter dated May 4, 2009, Mills wrote to Sen. Alfond and the members of the committee that she “knew of no constitutional impediment to passage” of the bill, essentially giving the committee the green light to move forward with the bill if they thought it was good policy.

I know of no constitutional impediment to passage of L.D. 1195.

Attorney General Janet Mills on a proposal to allow non-citizen voting in maine local elections. May 4, 2009

Testimony at the public hearing was robust on both sides, with the side in support of allowing non-citizens to vote stacked with liberal politicians and special interests.

Notable among those testifying in support were the bill sponsor, Sen. Justin Alfond (D – Portland) along with:

Rep. Brian Bolduc (D – Auburn)
Larry Gilbert (Mayor of Lewiston)
Ben Chin (Maine People’s Alliance)
Pious Ali (now serving on Portland City Council)
Justin Costa (now serving on Portland City Council)
Jenna Vendil (League of Young Voters)

Testimony in opposition to the bill was largely from Maine citizens, with few special interest groups or politicians weighing in.

The Maine Municipal Association weighed in to oppose the bill, but testified that if the Maine Legislature thought it wise to allow non-citizens to vote, they should pass the change for all state and local elections by abolishing the citizenship requirement through an amendment to the Maine Constitution.

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap’s office submitted testimony neither for nor against the bill, saying that the decision to allow non-citizens to vote was a “pure policy question for determination by the legislature”, but highlighting that the secretary of state’s office felt the proposal, if it became law would be better placed in Maine law under title 30-A than under title 21-A, which was where the original draft bill would have changed the law.

Dunlap’s office also testified that important to the process of allowing non-citizens to vote would be the maintenance of two separate voter files at the municipal elections.

Shenna Bellows, who is now a Maine State Senator, testified neither for nor against the bill on behalf of the Maine Civil Liberties Union.

The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee would go on to vote against the proposal by a 12-1 margin, with only Rep. Diane Russell voting in favor of the bill, but the door had been opened to non-citizen voting.

Cities and towns allowing non-citizens to vote was now seen as legally viable, and due to Maine’s Legislative process, it went on to be considered by the full Maine Legislature even though it was eventually voted down by wide margins in both chambers. The Maine House voted against the bill 131-9 and the Maine Senate voted to kill the bill with a 33-2 vote.

In Portland, the League of Young Voters, whose founder (and director until 2008) Justin Alfond, now had at least achieved a level of legal viability for their idea with the help of Janet Mills, took matters into their own hands.

The group pushed forward with a referendum to put a ballot question to Portland voters asking them to authorize the city to register non-citizens and allow them to vote in local elections.

On August 23, 2010, the Portland City Council gave final approval to the question, unanimously authorizing it to be placed on the November 2, 2010 ballot in a city council vote.

The campaign began in earnest at that point, culminating in a debate at Bates College in Lewiston between Ben Chin of the Maine People’s Alliance vs. Andrew Ian Dodge on November 1, eve of the vote.

Alfond, Chin and their respective groups the League of Young Voters and the Maine People’s Alliance would go on to learn that their efforts were for naught in that referendum the following night, turned back by 52% of Portland voters who rejected the idea.

The public discussion around the issue would be quiet in coming years, but it wouldn’t die.

In 2011, a public debate sprang up around the state’s same-day voter registration process, and while a legislative change to end same-day registration was repealed by a People’s Veto, the Maine Secretary of State conducted an investigation into some of the claims around voter registration in Maine.

That investigation, conducted by the Maine Secretary of State, partnering with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and other state and local officials, found that six non-citizens had managed to become registered voters in Maine, with one actually casting a vote in a Maine election.

The investigation found that two of the five non-citizens who had registered to vote in Maine elections did so through a Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles application process, one had lived in Portland and one in South Portland.

A third non-citizen had registered to vote and cancel on the same day, and the fourth non-citizen who registered to vote had done so through a process that the Secretary of State could not determine.

The fifth non-citizen identified in the investigation was found to be a citizen of El Salvador who had voted illegally in Maine in 2002, but then deported in 2006. The sixth non-citizen identified in the investigation was found to be a citizen of Peru who registered to vote in 2002 but, according to local records, had never actually voted.

Three other records in the state’s voter database (CVR) were investigated but officials could not determine their citizenship.

All the while, the effort to allow non-citizens to vote in Maine’s local elections was alive and apparently, waiting for a more favorable climate to return.

In July of 2018, Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling, up for re-election in 2019, partnered with Pious Ali, a member of the Portland City Council and an original supporter of Sen. Justin Alfond’s 2009 legislation, to introduce a new proposal for a referendum to amend the Charter of the City of Portland to allow non-citizens to vote in local elections. The proposal was given a first reading by the Portland City Council at a meeting on July 16th, 2018.

In a news report from WGME, Strimling and Ali both admitted that they were pushing the issue again in the 2018 mid-term election year because they thought progressive backlash against the Trump administration would improve the question’s chance of passage, but others on the Portland City Council were not sure.

At an August 13th Portland City Council meeting, about a week after the Portland Board of Education approved the referendum in a split vote, the council voted to send the proposed charter amendment out to the city’s Legislative Committee to be studied rather than move forward with a vote on the question in the 2018 general election

The Portland City Council did so in part because some immigrant advocates raised concerns about non-citizens facing legal consequences for ‘accidentally’ voting in federal elections, which was a concern raised in 2009 legislative committee testimony by Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap. Dunlap, however, raised the concern for the integrity of Maine’s elections under state and federal law, not the legal consequences faced by non-citizens for voting.

In August of 2018, Governor Paul LePage entered the fray in Portland’s non-citizen voting debate, using his weekly radio address to point to several state laws that require a Maine resident to be a citizen before they can register to vote, saying, “First, Maine law specifies that any person registering to vote must be a citizen. It states “[a] person who meets the following requirements may vote in any election in a municipality.” [Title 21-A ss. 111]

It then lists citizenship as criteria number one–quote: “the person must be a citizen of the United States.”

In addition to this clear, basic statement, other state laws stipulate that Portland cannot exempt local municipal elections from these registration criteria by amending the City’s charter.

In other words, “home rule” does not apply to voting laws. [Title 30-A ss. 2501(2)]

Furthermore, state law allows any voter or election official to challenge a cast ballot, and lists the improper registration of a non-citizen as grounds for a challenge. [Title 21-A ss. 673]”

LePage would go on to say about Strimling, “Rather than pursue yet another politically correct boondoggle in his constant attempts to attract media attention, I asked Mayor Strimling to focus on real issues where municipalities and the state can work to prevent people from getting hurt.”

If the government gives non-citizens everything it gives a citizen, like welfare and voting, why should newcomers become citizens?

Is welfare all we have to attract newcomers?

Governor Paul LePage, August 22, 2018

To the issue of Strimling’s non-citizen voting push, LePage asked, “If the government gives non-citizens everything it gives a citizen, like welfare and voting, why should newcomers become citizens? Is welfare all we have to attract newcomers?”

Still, these concerns did not appear to deter advocates for Portland allowing non-citizen voting, as Mayor Strimling continued to publicly push the idea into late 2018.

Now, as the ten-year anniversary of Attorney General Janet Mills giving a green light to the legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee to consider the issue approaches, recently elected Governor Janet Mills has a Republican lawmaker moving forward with a proposal to amend the Maine Constitution to forbid non-citizen voting in local elections.

On one side of her political base, Mills needs to keep faith with rural, blue collar Democrats who voted for her on a promise that she was a moderate Democrat willing to work across the aisle for the greater good. On the other side of Mills’ base she has the city of Portland’s progressive voters and elected officials, along with a flotilla of liberal advocacy groups that certainly want her to support Portland’s efforts to allow non-citizen voting.

The momentum that Attorney General Janet Mills provided in 2009 to supporters of non-citizen voting with her legislative testimony appears to have carried all the way through to confront her as an early challenge in a new chapter of her political career.

During the 2018 campaign for Governor, Mills said she did not support allowing non-citizens to vote, but it remains to be seen how she will react to a constitutional amendment to forbid the practice.

Mills will likely have to choose between siding with Republicans and moderate Democrats to preserve Maine’s local elections for United States citizens, or throw in with her progressive base and groups such as the Maine People’s Alliance and allow Portland to blow the doors wide open to non-citizen voting in local elections.

A public hearing for Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham’s proposal to amend the Maine Constitution to forbid non-citizen voting in local elections will be held on March 11th by the Maine Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee.

The Portland City Council’s Legislative Committee currently has four meetings scheduled from March 18th to April 1st, but no agendas for the meetings have yet been published.

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