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In Maryland, A Debate About Municipal Election Restrictions For Non-Citizens


A city in Maryland is debating whether to allow noncitizens to vote in local elections. That could mean that green card holders, students with visas and immigrants here in this country illegally would be able to cast ballots for mayor and other city officials. The debate in College Park, Md., is happening at a time when other places around the country are imposing voter restrictions and a federal commission is focusing on voter fraud. College Park Council Member Christine Nagle is the sponsor of this voting measure and she joins us now.

Welcome to the program.

CHRISTINE NAGLE: Glad to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So can you explain why you proposed this measure and why you feel that noncitizens should have this representation?

NAGLE: Certainly. We have a significant number of residents in our city who have been here for a while that aren't U.S. citizens. And just the equity of those individuals being in our community, working here, paying property taxes, paying income taxes and still not being able to participate in our city government and elect our leaders seems a little bit disparate because we also have the University of Maryland here that has a large student population. So someone who is attending school at the University of Maryland and living on the campus can vote in city elections. However, our long-term residents who are part of our community were not able to.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Washington Post reported on this and quoted a resident who spoke out at a recent meeting on the issue. And he said, quote, "the proposal threatens to dilute the meaning of citizenship in our country."

I imagine that the people that are against this have said similar things. What's your response to that? Does it?

NAGLE: No, I don't think it does at all. And I think it's just, you know, a lot of people's mindset is just citizenship is something that they equate with voting, that it's something you get as a privilege of being a citizen. And while that may make sense for national elections, it doesn't translate to city elections at all, in my opinion. And additionally, I think what - some people don't realize that it hasn't always been this way. For many years, from the start of this country through at least 1920, many - up to 40 territories and states allowed noncitizens to vote. And that was not a criteria.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There's been so much negative backlash. And we've seen in other places that have adopted this that actually very few noncitizens vote. So why move forward?

NAGLE: Yeah. And that's been, I think, a disappointment in some of those other jurisdictions as well. The reason to go forward is because we do want to enable our neighbors who it would matter for. I think it also sends a message that our community is a welcoming community and that we appreciate everyone here, regardless of their citizen status. And if you want to be part of our community, you can.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you think this debate, though, will have strengthened or fractured your community? Was it worth it to put this out there when it has caused so much consternation?

NAGLE: Sure. And I've been thinking about that myself because as a member of the community, what I've always worked to do is do community building. I'm more of a community activist than a politician. And I think, if I could step back, I would have done a lot more public outreach before the council talked about it and put it on there, just to get residents more involved with the thought process earlier on. I - that's the biggest upset to me, is the fact that it seems that this is causing, you know, a divisiveness within our own community.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Christine Nagle is a council member for the city of College Park, Md. Thank you very much.

NAGLE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.