November 13, 2003
VOTING RIGHTS OF RESIDENT ALIENS
By: Sandra Norman-Eady, Chief Attorney
You asked if Connecticut and other states allow resident aliens to vote on referendum questions in the town where they own property.
The qualifications for registering and voting in a state are determined by that state's law, rather than by federal regulation, as long as there are no violations of the federal Constitution. Despite the possibility for different qualifications by state, all states have chosen to require U.S. citizenship as a prerequisite for voter registration. But this was not always the case. Prior to World War I, immigrants were allowed to vote in local, state, and national elections in 22 states.
Although no state currently allows resident aliens to vote in state or federal elections, seven municipalities allow them to vote in local elections. Two Massachusetts cities, Amherst and Cambridge, have asked the state legislature for permission to allow resident aliens to vote in local elections. As used in this report, the term “resident aliens” refers to people who are not born or naturalized in United States or born to citizens of this county while overseas.
CONNECTICUT LAW ON VOTING RIGHTS OF RESIDENT ALIENS
Connecticut law requires a person to be registered in order to vote in any state or municipal election or primary, but any adult property owner who is a U.S. citizen and pays taxes in a town on property assessed at $1,000 or more may vote at a town meeting (CGS § 7-6). Interestingly, it was not until 2002 that the law clearly stated that property owners must be U.S. citizens to vote. Before the passage of PA 02-130, the law required them to be “citizens,” leaving the meaning of this term to interpretation.
Despite the restrictions on people qualified to vote, citizen property owners can vote on local questions because the law distinguishes an “elector” (a registered voter) from a “voter.” A voter, the property owner in this case, is not necessarily a registered elector. These citizen property owners may not vote in the election of local officials, but may participate as “voters” at town meetings or adjourned town meetings, known as referendums, when a question is placed before the voters, including bond issues and school board matters.
Although the law applies to all municipalities, its provisions on voting apply “unless restricted by the provisions of any special act relating to such town . . ..” In some Connecticut towns, provisions of a special act (which supersedes state law) may allow expanded participation in town referendums, allowing non-citizens who are of age and own property to vote.
If it had been enacted, a bill (SB 340) introduced during the 2003 regular legislative session would have allowed non-citizens to vote at a town meeting or referendum or a fire, sewer, or school district or municipal subdivision meeting or referendum, unless a special act imposes other restrictions. They would have had to be at least 18 years old and own and be liable for taxes in the town, district, or subdivision on property assessed at $1,000 or more on the latest grand list. A town meeting that is adjourned for a vote on a later date at polling places is considered a referendum. The bill was favorably reported by the Government Administration and Elections Committee but died in the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee.
ALIEN VOTING IN OTHER JURISDICTIONS
Since 1968, New York City has granted resident aliens who are the parents of school children the right to vote and run for community school board (N.Y. Educ. Law § 2590 (c)(3)). The City of Chicago similarly gives such parents the right to vote in school board elections (105 Ill. Comp. Stat. Ann. 5/34-2.1(d)(ii)). In 1992, Takoma Park, Maryland, amended its municipal charter to give all residents, regardless of citizenship, the right to vote, and run for office, in local elections (Takoma Park Charter §§ 601 and 603). Four smaller Maryland municipalities, all in Montgomery County, followed Takoma's example and now allow resident aliens to participate in local elections. These municipalities are Somerset (Charter Art. 5 § 83-21), Barnesville (Charter § 74-3), Chevy Chase Sections 3 and 5, and Martin's Addition.
The most recent, successful non-citizen voting initiatives have been in Massachusetts. The city councils in Amherst and Cambridge voted to ask the state legislature to approve home rule petitions that would allow resident aliens to vote in local elections. To date, the legislature has not acted on the petitions.