A Move to Extend Vote to Immigrants

A Massachusetts town decides tonight whether its noncitizens should have the right to cast ballots in local elections.

It's a right all American adults have, even if the majority do not exercise it. To vote, you have only to be 18 and a citizen ... or do you?

Tonight, at its town meeting, this college town in central Massachusetts will consider a proposal to let noncitizens vote in local elections. If the measure passes, Amherst would join several communities that are testing a type of expanded democracy - an experiment that supporters hope will catch on elsewhere now that anti-immigrant sentiment appears to be fading in the US.

Here in Amherst, the measure would give a voice to a politically invisible slice of the diverse population - which includes immigrant professors and others attracted by the five colleges in the surrounding area.

"It makes people feel like full members of communities," says Jamin Raskin, constitutional law professor at American University in Washington. He draws off the experience of Takoma Park, Md., which has passed such a measure, and of Chicago and New York, which allow noncitizens to vote for school board.

But it's hard to say if the idea will catch on beyond liberal bastions like Amherst, where the bus service is free, and Birkenstocks and beards are de rigueur.

Critics argue that noncitizens are "getting something for nothing" under measures like this one, cheapening the privilege of voting. They also worry that if legal immigrants can vote, illegals would be able to sneak in to vote, too.

PERHAPS the most compelling argument in favor of the idea comes straight out of the American Revolution: "No taxation without representation." Supporters argue that because alien residents must fulfill responsibilities of citizenship - including taxes and the military draft - they should partake in the rewards, such as voting.

Even supporters, however, acknowledge that conflicts of interest would arise if America's 10 million immigrants - who are citizens of other countries - were allowed to vote in national elections. Thus they advocate participation in local or state elections only.

The US Supreme Court has repeatedly left the issue of noncitizen voting to the states, many of which would allow it. Maryland's Takoma Park, for instance, began the practice in 1991. But it's not as if immigrants have taken over city hall. In fact, noncitizens have voted in much smaller percentages than citizens.

There has been a subtle change, however, in the tone of politics, say several residents. "Campaigns are just more inclusive now," says Dr. Raskin, a Takoma Park resident. In fact, the city began allowing noncitizens to vote partly in response to 1991 riots by Hispanics in Washington's nearby Mt. Pleasant neighborhood.

"When people get frustrated, they're probably going to participate one way or another," says Raskin. "It could be at the ballot box or in the streets."

Nationally, the idea has had some success and some failures. Chicago and New York allow residents to vote for school board. With big immigrant populations, they mirror many 19th-century cities and states, which allowed immigrant suffrage as an incentive for them to stay.

Then during World War I, as anti-immigrant sentiment grew, noncitizen suffrage was curtailed. More recently, immigrant-voting proposals in cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles have failed.

If the plan succeeds in Amherst, it will benefit people like Kandula Sastry, a physics professor at the University of Massachusetts. An Indian citizen who has taught here for 35 years - and who has just applied to become a US citizen - he welcomes the idea. "That inclusiveness would make you feel an integral part of a community," he says of voting.

But even if the proposal passes in Amherst tonight, which it's expected to, it faces a tougher test in the state legislature, which must approve it. A previous Amherst effort died there in 1996.

The skepticism at the State House is symbolic of broader opposition to the idea. Even some immigrants-rights groups won't push for the concept, concerned it could spark an anti-immigration backlash.

Still, public-opinion polls show a decrease in anti-immigrant sentiment. In a 1997 survey by the Washington-based National Immigration Forum, 46 percent of respondents said immigration should be decreased or stopped. That's down from 65 percent in 1993.

It's a sentiment that parallels the fading importance of borders, says Vladimir Morales, chief sponsor of the Amherst plan. "We're getting in touch with all this global village stuff," he says. "It's the way to go."

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