By Morgan Dyer
On Jan. 26, I was lucky enough to meet with Portland At-Large Councilor Pious Ali at Coffee ME Up on Cumberland Avenue to learn about an initiative of his. Ali wants to give resident non-citizens in Portland the right to vote in local elections.
Pious Ali is a former SMCC student who studied sociology. A dedicated community advocate with a commitment to public service, Ali is the first African-born American and Muslim to be elected to a public office in the state. He was elected to the city’s Board of Public Education in 2013 and to an at-large City Council seat in November 2016.
Pious has spent the better part of his career focused on community engagement creating dialogue across cultural, ethnic, socioeconomic and faith-based groups. He founded the Maine Interfaith Youth Alliance and co-founded King Fellows, a Portland-based youth group dedicated to creating meaningful opportunities for youth through leadership and civic engagement based on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Pious is an alumnus of the Institute for Civic Leadership (now known as Lift 360), and in 2015 he was named Lift 360’s Most Distinguished Alumnus. He is also a member of the Seeds of Peace 2016-17 Gather Fellows.
Ali’s work with Portland Empowered (a program of the Muskie School’s Youth and Community Engagement project) is focused on creating opportunities for unengaged members of our community to be heard through their own voice and empowering young people and families to speak up for themselves. He is committed to this work because it is leveling the playing field for community members who have been left behind, and creates equity in a system that prepares young citizens from all backgrounds for participation in American democratic and public life.
Councilor Ali is also a long-time advocate for voting rights for resident non-citizens. This is important to him because 10 years ago he himself immigrated from Accra, Ghana and became a citizen. Councilor Ali values democracy and believes that democracy works best when everybody can participate. He emphasized to me that the state constitution does not explicitly exclude resident non-citizens from voting municipally, and neither does the city of Portland charter.
So, what’s his plan? To expand municipal voting rights, he has proposed an amendment to the language of the City’s charter allowing anyone who lives, pays taxes and works in Portland to participate in municipal voting. He is pushing to put expanding voting rights for non-citizens on the list of goals for the Legislative Committee in Portland, of which he is the chair.
The purpose of this committee is to advance Council policy initiatives before federal and state governments. The other members of the Committee are Jill C. Duson and Mayor Ethan Strimling.
On Monday, Jan. 28, the Council will have a workshop on their goals for the year, and Councilor Ali is bringing that forward as one of the legislative committee’s goals.
The committee will then work with city staff and other immigrants’ rights advocates to move this issue forward.
They will vote on it and make recommendations to the full Council, which includes Kimberly Cook, Brian Batson, Spencer Thibodeau, Nicholas Mavodones Jr., Belinda Ray, Jill Duson, Mayor Strimling and Justin Costa. The city charter grants them the power to enact, amend or repeal rules, ordinances and resolutions by majority vote.
They would vote on whether or not to act on the Legislative Committee’s recommendations. And if the City Council votes the amendment down, Councilor Ali plans to work with other immigrant leaders and their allies to collect signatures from residents of Portland to send the issue to a referendum so that the citizens of Portland can vote on this in the next election.
The response that Councilor Ali has gotten from the City Council is unclear. On Aug. 10, 2018, city councilors received a memo from the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project and the ACLU of Maine outlining some concerns regarding the expansion of municipal voting rights to resident non-citizens. The biggest concern seems to be educating poll workers and resident non-citizens in depth about which elections they can and cannot vote in, and the strict federal penalties should they vote in a federal election without citizenship. This is a concern because the elections take place on the same day and in the same places. Filling out the wrong ballot could result in a Portlander becoming vulnerable to deportation and jail time, so everybody involved needs to be on the same page. Despite these concerns, Pious Ali is resolved that this is the right thing to do. To quote: “Our democracy works best when everybody is involved.”
So how can SMCC students that feel passionate about expanding resident non-citizen municipal voting rights get involved? We can preemptively collect signatures. We can also show up in support to related meetings at City Hall. We can start conversations in our communities educating each other about freedom, democracy and what is at stake. We can write to our local representatives and newspapers to tell them how we feel, and if this does not pass at the Council meeting we can volunteer to work with councilor Ali and our immigrant community leaders to take this issue to Portland citizens.