TAKOMA PARK – Victoria Amaya planned to go to the polls here Tuesday because she thinks it is important to vote and because she hopes to see the city to provide more services to the community.
Amaya, like many voters, casts her ballot because she is a concerned citizen. But unlike others who went to the polls Tuesday, she is a citizen of Mexico.
While she has lived in Takoma Park for more than two years, Amaya remains a Mexican citizen. That would keep her from voting in most places, but not in this nuclear free-zone that some call a “little Berkeley,” where non-citizens have been allowed to vote in municipal elections since 1992.
“It’s great. It’s classic Takoma Park,” said Jay Marx, who voted Tuesday.
The city is one of just six Maryland municipalities — all in Montgomery County — that let non-citizens vote in local elections. Takoma Park has allowed non-citizens to vote since 1992, after a referendum the previous year.
But the city didn’t stop there. Takoma Park actively recruits immigrant voters who are not U.S. citizens, and it has hired community organizers to go door-to-door encouraging people to register. The city had 475 non-citizen residents registered to vote Tuesday.
Most citizens who were at the polls Tuesday were like Carolyn Fischer, who welcomed the participation of non-citizens.
“The more democracy the better,” she said.
But others, including election judge Claire B. Kozel, disapprove of the law.
“My people came to this country in 1607. I’m a true and blue American,” Kozel said. “I don’t think people should vote if they don’t think enough of the country to become a citizen of the country.”
Anne Norman disagreed. She and her husband, Colin, both citizens of the United Kingdom, have lived in Takoma Park since 1976. She said she voted Tuesday and has voted regularly since the law passed.
“This is our home,” she said. “We pay taxes here and our daughter has gone through school here. I think it’s good that we can choose our community leaders.”
But even though they can vote, most said that not enough non-citizens have voted in the past to affect election outcomes.
“I guess it puts Takoma Park on some sort of map, but it really doesn’t matter,” said election judge Martin Morse Wooster. “It doesn’t change the nature of Takoma Park politics.”
Of the 334 non-citizen voters registered for the city’s 1999 election, only 41 cast a ballot, or 12 percent of those eligible, less than the overall turnout rate of 18 percent.
State law requires that voters in state and county elections be U.S. citizens, but allows municipalities to set their own eligibility criteria.
Of Maryland’s 156 municipalities, only six allow non-citizens to vote: Takoma Park, Garrett Park, Somerset, Chevy Chase Section 3, Martin’s Additions and Barnesville, according James Peck, research director for the Maryland Municipal League.
Garrett Park amended its charter this year, just in time for May elections. Eight non-citizens are registered to vote there, said Mayor Nancy Floreen.
“There are a variety of non-U.S. citizens who contribute tremendously to the community,” Floreen said. “Garrett Park decided they should have a say in who gets elected.”
Peck said the league takes no stance on whether municipalities should allow non-citizens to vote.
“We just like it that our folks have the discretion to choose,” he said.