‘Now I have my voice here’: The impact of noncitizen voting in Vermont
In recent years, Winooski, Montpelier and Burlington made it possible for all legal residents to vote — including asylum seekers, refugees and green card holders.
Brave Little State is Vermont Public’s listener-driven journalism show. In each episode, we answer a question about Vermont that’s been asked — and voted on — by you, our audience. Today, a question from Charlotte Blend of Winooski:
“What effect has noncitizen voting had in the towns where it's now legal: Winooski, Montpelier and Burlington?”
Reporter Mikaela Lefrak talks to new Vermont voters — and a lot of city clerks — about how the at-times controversial changes in local election policy have affected three Vermont cities, from their councils and school boards to their residents.
Note: Our show is made for the ear. We recommend listening to the audio provided here. But we also provide a written version of the episode below.
Josh Crane: From Vermont Public, this is Brave Little State. I’m Josh Crane.
Mikaela Lefrak: And I’m Mikaela Lefrak.
Mikaela Lefrak: Hi Prashant, it’s Mikaela.
Prashant Singh: Good to see you
Mikaela Lefrak: Thanks for having me.
Mikaela Lefrak: I’m in a ranch house on a cul-de-sac in Winooski. It belongs to Prashant Singh and his wife. They bought it recently, and when I show up for an interview, Prashant takes me on a tour. In the kitchen, he points through the window into the big backyard.
Prashant Singh: Behind these trees is the school soccer field.
Mikaela Lefrak: Oh, so the kids can just run over there if they want to.
Prashant Singh: Yeah. When they have their soccer match, I just sit on my property and watch them. (laughter)
Mikaela Lefrak: Prashant has three kids in Winooski public schools. He’s proud of that soccer field, and really, every part of the school system. He cares about improving it, too. He was part of a group of parents who noticed the district didn’t have a school bus system, so they set one up and ran it themselves.
The schools are also one reason why Prashant really cares about voting.
Prashant Singh: It is about my money, right, that is going to the state and city. So I should also have a choice to say that my hard earned money should be used for the betterment of the city, for good roads, for good schools.
Mikaela Lefrak: But for most of the nine years Prashant’s lived in Winooski, he wasn’t allowed to vote. That’s because Prashant is not a U.S. citizen.
Prashant moved to the U.S. from India on a work visa. He works for a healthcare technology company, and his wife’s a dental assistant. They applied for U.S. citizenship back in 2016, but because of the type of work visa he has and where they’re from, it’ll probably take years more for them to get approved.
Still, even though Prashant isn’t a citizen, he really wants to vote locally. So a few years ago, when some Winooski residents started discussing ways to allow noncitizens like him to vote, Prashant jumped right into the effort. He even joined a committee of Winooski residents exploring a change to the city’s charter.
He learned a lot that surprised him about voting in America.
Prashant Singh: I even was not aware that like, like a few decades back, women were not allowed to vote. Later they got voting rights. And also it is just a process, like an ongoing process of development.
Mikaela Lefrak: Now, the committee wasn't all rah-rah on the idea of letting noncitizens vote. They had some spicy debates. Some folks thought it would be a good way to be welcoming to newcomers, and they pointed to the fact that legal residents — regardless of their citizenship status — pay local taxes. But other people said voting should remain a right of U.S. citizens alone.
Prashant Singh: So I call them to my house also, sometimes, so that we can have a broader discussion on this. And now, we all are good friends.
Mikaela Lefrak: The people who opposed the idea, you invited them over to talk?
Prashant Singh: Yes.
Mikaela Lefrak: And it worked. Winooski’s residents approved a change to their city’s charter, and in 2021, the Vermont legislature made it official.
Now, people who live in Winooski who have work visas, refugee or asylum status, permanent residency — essentially, all the city’s legal residents — can vote on local and school issues.
Montpelier also got noncitizen voting the same year as Winooski. Burlington got it just this year. And, to be clear, this isn’t a common thing in other places — there are just 17 jurisdictions in the entire country where non-U.S. citizens can vote in local elections. And Vermont is home to three of them — though I did call around to a bunch of other Vermont towns and I didn't hear of anywhere else that’s considering it.
Charlotte Blend: Why isn't everybody just psyched that this is happening? Maybe they are.
Mikaela Lefrak: This is our Brave Little State question asker, Charlotte Blend. She lives in Winooski, too, and she’s really into the idea of noncitizen voting. She wonders, now that these charter changes have been on the books for a bit:
Charlotte Blend: What effect has noncitizen voting had in the towns where it is now legal — Winooski, Montpelier and Burlington?
Barriers at the ballot box
Mikaela Lefrak: Before we dive in, a quick note on terminology. When it comes to describing these changes to the voter rolls, some places use the phrase “noncitizen voting.” Others use “all legal resident voting.” In Vermont, they’re both used to describe people who have a legal status, but who are not U.S. citizens: refugees, asylum seekers, green card holders. You’ll hear both phrases — “noncitizens” and “all legal residents” — in this story.
Also, when we talk about voting, we’re talking about local elections. Think city council members, not state legislators or governor.
Alright, so, back to our winning question-asker, Charlotte. We meet up at her office in Burlington — she works for the University of Vermont Health Network. And the first thing she explains to me is her accent. She’s from the United Kingdom, and she’s still a citizen there. Not the U.S.
Charlotte Blend: I have a green card. So I'm a legal resident.
Mikaela Lefrak: Like Prashant, Charlotte calls Winooski her forever home. She has a house and a spouse, and her kids go to school there. For the most part, being a green card holder doesn’t affect her day-to-day life.
Charlotte Blend: You can very much live your life without, without that having a big effect. And I can't be the president, but apart from that, you know, it doesn't affect my everyday life.
Mikaela Lefrak: Except for one thing: Charlotte really cares about voting, especially on school issues. She was thrilled when Winooski’s charter change got approved. But she wonders, is that how other non-U.S. citizens feel? Are they as psyched as she is, or does the idea of voting feel more fraught? Navigating the U.S. immigration system is already no cakewalk, even for someone like Charlotte, who grew up speaking English and who’s been here for more than 20 years.
Charlotte Blend: It's still nerve-wracking to me when I travel. What if they say my U.S.-born children can get on the flight but they stopped me getting on the flight? You know, it's stressful. And I don't have any other complicating factors. You know, I have all my paperwork. I have my birth certificate. I have everything in order. I have copies of everything I've filed with immigration since 2000. Many people don't have that.
Mikaela Lefrak: Charlotte sensed there might be some barriers keeping other legal residents from rushing to the ballot box like she did. The numbers bear that out. For the first Town Meeting Day in Winooski with all legal resident voting, 49 non-U.S. citizens registered. The next year, that number went up to 61. But that’s still just 10% of the city’s total non-U.S. citizens.
To figure out what some of the barriers might be, I head to Vermont’s capital, Montpelier. It was the first Vermont jurisdiction to look into the idea of noncitizen voting, so arguably, it’d be the farthest along.
John Odum: It’s a little chaotic in here.
Mikaela Lefrak: That’s quite alright. Hello. Good morning.
Mikaela Lefrak: I go to city hall, to meet with the guy who knows everything about voting in Montpelier.
John Odum: In a sense, it’s a no-brainer.
Mikaela Lefrak: City clerk John Odum.
John Odum: I mean, these are folks who are paying taxes, they own property, they have kids in school, Why wouldn't they have an equal say in the budget of the city? Who their representatives are?
Mikaela Lefrak: John’s really proud of his work on this issue. But for years, he says, he didn’t think it was possible. Every so often, a resident would come to him and ask if there was a way for noncitizens to vote, and he’d say a pretty quick no. But then, about five or six years ago:
John Odum: I was taking courses through the University of Minnesota to get an election administrator certificate, and we got to a module on noncitizen voting. And I'm looking at all these towns around the country that do it. And I'm like, I guess I didn't know what I was talking about. There's a way we could do it.
Mikaela Lefrak: In order to do it, Montpelier would need to change its municipal charter. And there was a motivated group of people who wanted to make that happen. Many were non-U.S. citizens, or married to one. A German woman who’s lived in Montpelier for 46 years told me she has paid plenty of taxes, and was very ready to have a say on the city council and the local budget.
A few years ago, the group got it done. It took a lot of signatures, community meetings, legislative hearings — oh, and overriding a veto from Governor Phil Scott, who didn’t think voting policies should vary town to town.
John Odum: But other than that, it was very mellow.
Mikaela Lefrak: Then came the lawsuits.
Right after Montpelier changed its charter, the Republican National Committee, the Vermont GOP and a couple of individual Vermonters sued both Montpelier and Winooski. They alleged the cities were violating the state constitution. It was all paid for by a group backed by prominent Republicans like Karl Rove and GOP mega-donor Steve Wynn. John Odum was named as a defendant in the suit.
Mikaela Lefrak: Were you surprised to see yourself named?
John Odum: Oh, yes. I thought that was crazy. (Laughter). Fortunately the legal system did too.
Mikaela Lefrak: The suits were both thrown out — the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that towns are allowed to make their own changes to municipal election rules. So Montpelier got down to the task of registering these voters. But when Town Meeting Day rolled around in March 2022, just 8 non-U.S. citizens had registered. Five of them voted.
I ask John how many there are now, and he pulls out a skinny, blue three-ring binder.
John Odum: These are my non-citizen voters, I was just looking at them, so they're mildly unorganized here.
Mikaela Lefrak: Oh, you have a whole binder.
John Odum: I keep them in a separate binder. Yeah, just because it's handy. What have I got? I’ve got 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, oh look at that, 11, 12. We’re on a roll. Yeah, not a whole lot happening on that front in Montpelier. But we're still very proud of it.
Mikaela Lefrak: Out of 6,330 registered voters in Montpelier, 12 are non-U.S. citizens — just under 0.2%. By way of comparison, that’s an even lower percentage than in Winooski. There could be a couple reasons for that. Montpelier’s population isn’t as diverse as Winooski’s. Also, Montpelier hasn’t done as much direct outreach about the new voting rules as Winooski has. And in Montpelier, non-U.S. citizens cannot vote on school issues, like the school budget. That’s because Montpelier’s part of a school district that includes other towns.
All in all, it’s been pretty quiet in Montpelier since the lawsuit got dismissed. John’s even on good terms with one of the Montpelier residents who signed his name to the lawsuit.
John Odum: You know, people are individuals, they're going to come at this from any number of different ways, and I respect that. And, you know, he comes in to pay bills and things and it's not an issue, we’re on a first name basis and everything.
Mikaela Lefrak: But he sued you!
John Odum: What are you gonna do, right? (laughter).
Mikaela Lefrak: Sounds pretty hunky-dory, right? But the opposition hasn’t gone away completely. Other people are still pushing back against the new rules.
Paul Dame: Our position is, we want to see people go all the way and become citizens.
Mikaela Lefrak: Paul Dame, chair of the Vermont GOP. After the other lawsuits were dismissed, the Vermont GOP and the national Republican Party filed another one, this time, just against Winooski. Non-U.S. citizens in Winooski can vote on school issues, and the Republican groups argue that’s unconstitutional, because the school budget’s part of a statewide funding system, not just a local one. As of when we’re publishing this story, that lawsuit is still active.
But when Paul and I talk, he doesn’t bring up schools. He brings up his wife.
Paul Dame: It’s been interesting for me, because I'm married to a former green card holder who became a citizen.
Mikaela Lefrak: I ask if he’s talked about this issue with her.
Mikaela Lefrak: I feel like that’d be an interesting marital discussion.
Paul Dame: It’s nothing that she ever felt was unfair. And when she got to the point of saying, “You know, I do want to participate in this, in this level, I do want to participate in the political process.” And from the time we made the decision until getting her her citizenship, it was the matter of months.
I think there’s probably some misinformation out there about what that process actually looked like. Maybe that'll be part of your story as well.
Mikaela Lefrak: It will be part of my story! I talked to the head of Vermont’s refugee office, who says the naturalization process for any new American takes an average of 18-24 months — applying, doing the citizenship interview, taking the exam. It can move faster — or slower — depending on where you’re from. For people from, say, India, like Prashant, it can take way longer than average. That’s because of federal immigration caps for certain countries.
And for refugees or asylum seekers, it can take even longer. An immigration attorney in Rutland tells me it takes, on average, 7 to 10 years for refugees and asylum seekers to attain full citizenship.
Paul Dame thinks there’s gotta be a way to speed up the citizenship process. And, he says, spending time on that would ultimately help more people than noncitizen voting.
Paul Dame: It seems like you know, in a couple months, we could develop a class, help those people out, get them through the naturalization process. And we would have citizens who are even better engaged, better educated and more fully able to participate in the process.
Mikaela Lefrak: While we talk, there’s something else that keeps dinging around in my head. I’ve spent a good amount of time reporting on voting rights. At a previous job, I made an entire podcast about Washington, D.C.’s push for statehood and representation in Congress.
In D.C, the statehood debate is unavoidably political, because most D.C. residents are registered Democrats. D.C. statehood would almost certainly mean more Democrats in Congress. I ask Paul Dame if there’s a similar dynamic going on here.
Mikaela Lefrak: Do you have any concerns that the push for noncitizen voting is a push by local Democratic leaders to expand the democratic electorate?
Paul Dame: I think that's certainly a possibility. I don't know if that's the case, because I feel like a lot of the people I've talked to who have been immigrants and who have started to become more interested in voting are coming from all different backgrounds. I think they’re just as diverse as the rest of Vermonters.
Mikaela Lefrak: Yeah, I ask because it seems like, at least on a national level, there are so many debates about voting, voter access, voter registration, that really fall along kind of stereotypical party lines.
Paul Dame: Republicans tend to be more conservative, meaning we have a system in place, it's in place for a reason, and we need to have, you know, extraordinary reasons to change that. Because anytime you make a change to a system, you don't necessarily understand what the unintended consequences are.
Mikaela Lefrak: Unintended consequences. Paul points out that every town and city with all legal resident voting ends up creating a list of non-U.S. citizens who have registered to vote, with all their personal information.
Paul Dame: People with ill intentions can get a hold of that.
Mikaela Lefrak: “Ill intentions,” he says, like people wanting to threaten or harm people on the list. For example, anyone can make a public records request and get a copy of a city’s voter rolls — like what John Odum keeps in his binder in Montpelier. Here’s Winooski’s city clerk, Jenny Willingham.
Jenny Willingham: So I just have it on a spreadsheet, date of birth, address, and when I get a public record request, I have to supply that.
Mikaela Lefrak: Right now the city clerks in Winooski, Burlington and Montpelier have to maintain their own electronic voter registration list for noncitizens. That’s because the state’s system — the one used for everybody else — doesn’t really compute noncitizen voters. The secretary of state’s office is looking into it, but changes aren’t going to come for another couple of years.
Kristine Lott: And, this did come up.
Mikaela Lefrak: Winooski mayor Kristine Lott.
Kristine Lott: You know, we raised this concern with noncitizen potential voters. It wasn’t such a concern that people wouldn’t want to still be able to vote.
Mikaela Lefrak: Prashant Singh, in Winooski, says it doesn’t make him nervous, but for other people he’s talked to? For sure. He tells me about one conversation he had with a refugee family.
Prashant Singh: They are still afraid that they will be sidelined.
Mikaela Lefrak: What do you mean sidelined?
Prashant Singh: Like people, I've seen like, they don't want to come and vote just because they're not a citizen. And other people who are citizens, they will not like it.
Hemant Ghising: People might be scared.
Mikaela Lefrak: This is Hemant Ghising, of Burlington.
Hemant Ghising: We are talking about the people who had been living in this oppressive society that, you know, voting is against the government, and they come to this country. Or, you are moving to a country where there are tribal issues, and then one tribe did not like other, you know, and then they don’t go for the voting because of the threat.
Mikaela Lefrak: Hemant is from Bhutan, but he lived in refugee camps in Nepal for nearly 20 years of his life. In 2011, he and his family were able to come to Vermont. About 5 years ago, he became a U.S. citizen.
Mikaela Lefrak: What do you like about Burlington?
Hemant Ghising: Mountains. You know, my ancestors were mountainous tribe. And I'm very fortunate that I'm in Vermont. You know, mountains are my hope. They are my lived experience. They are my friends.
Mikaela Lefrak: Hemant was involved with the successful push for all legal resident voting in Burlington. But he says people need to understand how many barriers still exist, especially for refugees and asylum seekers.
Hemant Ghising: I'm talking from the perspective of somebody who had been suppressed for long. There are a lot of barriers:as I said, language, you know, cultural barriers, you know, the traumatic experience from the past.
Mikaela Lefrak: For someone coming from a country where violence often occurs during elections, it might be uncomfortable, or even scary, to show up to vote and see two separate tables — one for citizens and one for everyone else. That’s how some polling places will look this coming March, when there’s a presidential primary. The cities need to make sure non-U.S. citizens are only receiving local ballots.
So election day has become a bit more complicated process than it was. But the city clerks say they have people in states like Maryland who they can call for advice.
Three decades of noncitizen voting
Jessie Carpenter: Interestingly enough, we’re celebrating — recognizing — 30 years of noncitizen voting in Takoma Park.
Mikaela Lefrak: Jessie Carpenter is the city clerk of Takoma Park, Maryland. Takoma Park is kind of the OG when it comes to noncitizen voting.
Jessie Carpenter: So, first noncitizen voting was in 1993.
Mikaela Lefrak: They also allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote, as well as immigrants without legal status.
And since noncitizen voting was first instituted 30 years ago, Jessie and other city staff have worked through some similar concerns to the ones in Vermont — mainly, that noncitizen voting might single certain people out, or mess with their citizenship applications.
When someone’s filling out their naturalization paperwork, they do have to acknowledge if they’ve voted in a local election.
Jessie Carpenter: And that always raises a little flag. So they need to explain that. So they'll contact me, and I prepare a letter for them.
Mikaela Lefrak: Jessie says, that always does the trick.
Jessie Carpenter: I have never had anyone come back and say they weren’t able to obtain citizenship because of it.
Mikaela Lefrak: Takoma Park has also changed how they do voter registration to purposefully make it harder for the public to weed out who’s a citizen and who’s not. And 30 years in, noncitizen voting is chugging along quietly and smoothly — though the participation rate is still pretty low.
Jessie Carpenter: Typically we have a few 100 registered and maybe 20% of them vote.
Initially there were a lot of noncitizens registered when it first became legal to vote here, but that really dropped off over time.
‘I feel myself rooted in Winooski’
Mikaela Lefrak: Alright, so, to get back to our question: What is the effect of noncitizen voting in Vermont?
Let’s tally some results here. Winooski and Montpelier have each run two elections that included non-U.S. citizen voters. They showed up to the polls, but in relatively small numbers.
Winooski’s Mayor Kristine Lott says noncitizen turnout hasn’t been big enough to have swayed the outcome on any issues. Remember, just over 1% of the registered voters in Winooski are non-U.S. citizens.
But Mayor Lott does think the policy has changed Winooski in a different way.
Kristine Lott: We've actually had a few noncitizen folks run for school board or apply to be on school board. So there's an increasing participation rate there in local government.
Mikaela Lefrak: The Winooski charter change didn’t just make it legal for noncitizens to vote — they can also apply for school board positions.
Over in the state’s largest city, Burlington, officials are gearing up for their first election with all legal resident voting in March. Real quick, let’s throw in one more city clerk for good measure. Burlington’s Sarah Montgomery.
Sarah Montgomery: So we are just in the stages of starting to register voters. We have four voters registered so far.
Mikaela Lefrak: That’s exciting. You got four in there. That’s great.
Sarah Montgomery: It is. Really exciting first ones to get in.
Mikaela Lefrak: All three Vermont cities are ramping up their outreach to New American communities, and they’re translating their ballots into different languages. Hemant Ghising, of Bhutan, says it might take a couple years to convince noncitizens to show up, especially refugees and asylum seekers.
Hemant Ghising: Here in Burlington, a lot of immigrants and refugees live in two different worlds. One is the one outside their home, and one is inside their homes. So, step outside, it’s a different culture. Once you’re in your home, you're back either in Africa or Asia, you know, when you go out, you are in Burlington, right?
Mikaela Lefrak: So it’s not going to be as easy as posting on Front Porch Forum or translating a ballot. But Hemant says honestly, it doesn’t matter to him how many people actually show up. What matters is that the policy itself exists.
Hemant Ghising: I think that’s very important. That shows the attitudes of our leaders and the attitude of the people who are working in the city. It’s the first step for the long journey.
Mikaela Lefrak: Our winning question-asker, Charlotte Blend, plans to return to the polls on Town Meeting Day. Her first time voting, in 2022, is one of her favorite memories.
Charlotte Blend: And I was so proud, because I could go down there to the senior center and get my sticker. And I made my husband take a picture of me outside the sign that’s saying “Vote here.” And for the first time, I could vote. And was telling everyone, you know, when I went — “This my first time,” and they’re looking at me like, “Yeah, yeah, just move along, please. We're trying to get this process” and — but it did feel important.
Mikaela Lefrak: As for Prashant and his wife, their first time voting was more mundane. They both had to work on election day, so they submitted their ballots early.
Prashant says, for him, voting is a big part of what’s keeping him in Winooski, and in Vermont. If he didn’t feel like he had a say in things, he might be more inclined to move to a place with a bigger Indian population or somewhere with less snow.
Prashant Singh: This is what I like about Winooski, right. Because if I might be in South Burlington, and I had no voice, I would have not bought properties. I would have said, “OK, I'll live here for a while then I'll move to Boston or to some warmer place.” But now I have my voice here. So I feel myself rooted in Winooski.
Mikaela Lefrak: Yeah. Do you imagine you and your family staying in Winooski?
Prashant Singh: Yeah. We will be Winooski citizens forever. Yeah. We have big plans for Winooski.
Mikaela Lefrak: Big plans, as in running for office? Prashant says if it could benefit Winooski residents, yeah, maybe he will.
Thanks so much for listening to the show. And thanks to Charlotte Blend of Winooski for the great question.
This episode was reported by Mikaela Lefrak and produced by Sabine Poux. Editing and additional production from the rest of the Brave Little State team: Josh Crane and Burgess Brown. Digital support from Sophie Stephens. Angela Evancie is Brave Little State’s Executive producer. Theme music is by Ty Gibbons; other music by Blue Dot Sessions.
Special thanks to Martin Austermuhle, Elaine Wang, Liz Edsell, Tracy Dolan and Anna Tadio.
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