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Billerica TM Rep Resolved to Make a Point: Voters Should Be Citizens

September 23, 2018

BILLERICA -- Should voting be open to non-citizens?

Billerica resident and Town Meeting representative Tony Ventresca knows his answer.

Ventresca received 10 signatures to place a resolution on the fall Town Meeting to “reaffirm” voting in all federal, state and local elections as the exclusive right of U.S. citizens.

“If you want to vote in our elections, then become a citizen,” said Ventresca, who is also chairman of the Billerica Republican Town Committee.

The language goes on to encourage all residents to seek U.S. citizenship and urge state and federal legislators to keep voting as the “exclusive right and privilege” of citizens.

Like the rest of Massachusetts, only citizens can vote in Billerica. However, a push to change this in other communities throughout the state motivated Ventresca to place the resolution on the town warrant.

This summer, the Boston City Council discussed -- but did not move forward -- a proposal to allow permanent legal residents to vote in citywide elections.

Cambridge, Newton, Brookline, Amherst and Wayland approved similar pushes, but all stalled in the state Legislature, which must approve a home-rule petition for the change to take place, according to John Cluverius, an assistant professor of politics at UMass Lowell.

In Maryland, he said, at least nine communities, including Takoma Park, a D.C. suburb, allow certain non-citizens to vote in local electioms.

The concept has historical precedent, according to Cluverius. In the 1780 version of the Massachusetts constitution, men could vote as long as they owned property, regardless of citizenship.

States didn’t make citizenship a requirement until after World War I, he said.

“Between World War I and 1928 all the states eliminated their rights of non-residents to vote,” he said.

In 1996, the federal government signed a law preventing non-citizens from voting.

Concern over hostile foreign governments interfering in U.S. politics drove the push to require citizenship in the 1920s and this same concern means action to expand the right to vote typically focuses on local elections, not federal, according to Cluverius.

Supporters argue local policies have a “direct and meaningful” impact on residents, who typically pay some form of local taxes, he said.

“The question becomes what’s the level of involvement in the place that you live that should affect your right to vote,” Cluverius said.

Proposed policies expand voting to permanent residents, not people in the country without permission, he said.

According to Cluverius, opponents argue a more interconnected world, means people living in the United States may have more access to vote in their home country. Local politics can also occasionally intersect with foreign policy, such as a company from another country looking to locate in the area, he said.

There’s also concern a greater portion of non-citizens are connected to people who are not legal residents, which could impact a local police department’s compliance with immigration enforcement, he said.

“Some communities of people living in the country legally are quite sympathetic to people living in the country illegally,” Cluverius said.

Billerica Finance Committee Chairman David Gagliardi said discussion of the petition at a meeting earlier this month focused on why Ventresca proposed this and if it could cause any legal complications.

“In the end we realized this was merely a resolution,” he said, meaning it’s an opinion of Town Meeting without legal teeth.

Though resolutions rarely come before Town Meeting, he said the Finance Committee voted to move the petition forward in a 8-2 vote with one abstention.

Ventresca said he hopes the resolution passes.

“I think it should be a no-brainer,” he said.

Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @ElizDobbins

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