When my wife and I are asked what we do, we sometime joke
that my job is to "think globally," while her job is to "act locally." Translation: in addition to working as
a consultant to a number of foundations and think tanks, my wife (Rebecca
Stone) is also a member of Brookline's "Town Meeting." A Town Meeting is a venerable New
England institution; in our case, it is a 250-person body of elected
representatives that debates and approves major town initiatives.
But sometimes our concerns overlap. A month or so ago, when the Park 51
controversy was stoking the growing fires of xenophobia and nativist prejudice,
my response was to write a few blog posts about the issue. Big deal. But she decided to do something more concrete. Specifically, she drafted and
sponsored a "warrant article" to be considered and voted upon at the next Town
Meeting. Her proposal would amend the
town's by-laws and give permanent legal residents ("green card holders") the
right to vote in local (i.e., town-wide) elections.
You can read all about it here.
Notice that this proposal is not about giving the right to
vote to undocumented aliens, tourists, or temporary visa holders. Nor would it permit green card
holders to vote in state-wide or national elections or to run for office. Rather, it is about a single town giving people who are permanent
legal residents (the vast majority of whom are taxpayers, including property
taxes), the opportunity to participate in local elections only. Most permanent legal residents eventually
become naturalized citizens after the requisite waiting period, and permitting them to
vote in local elections is also a way to encourage greater civic
Equally important, it is a way to signal that America
remains a country that welcomes people from overseas. It reminds us that we are a country whose very existence,
past achievements, and future prospects rest on attracting and integrating future
citizens from all over the world. Money
"A number of legal immigrants pay property taxes and send their
children to public schools in Brookline, Stone said, and she believes allowing
them to vote in local elections is a way to honor their commitment to the
"It may sound schmaltzy, but that's why I did it,'' said Stone, who is
also an elected Town Meeting member. "I just got tired of complaining about
what everybody else was saying. I figured it's a small thing to do. It's a
small gesture. But it's a step in the right direction.''
There are also ample historical precedents for this
arrangement. The Constitution is
silent on this issue, but the Federal government has long given states and
local communities the right to determine suffrage over state and local
elections, and over forty different states permitted various forms of local non-citizen
voting between 1776 and 1926. Both New York and Chicago have allowed permanent legal residents to vote
in local elections as well, as have many other communities.
Massachusetts is a "home rule" state, which means that if the
warrant article passes, then the town must petition the State legislature for final
approval. Previous petitions
from other communities have not been acted upon (if you know anything about the
legislature here, that won't surprise you), but a number of other communities
are considering similar measures and we may be seeing a turn of the tide.
In any case, the next time you hear about Newt Gingrich or
some other fear-mongering blowhard trying to makes us more suspicious of anyone
born elsewhere, be aware that there are other Americans working, in their own
communities, to counter such poisonous attitudes. And needless to say, I couldn't be prouder.
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