Chevy Chase considers allowing legal aliens to vote in elections
Somerset, Takoma Park gave foreign-born residents voting rights
Jean Le Dem and his wife Veronique Kessler have a problem. They have lived in the Town of Chevy Chase for 15 years, sent their children to preschool in the town, and care deeply about local issues like recycling and traffic control. But they have never voted in town elections. They can't.
Le Dem and Kessler are foreign-born residents of the town who are not U.S. citizens. Under the town's charter, they are not allowed to vote in the town elections. But officials are considering following the lead of two other local communities, the Town of Somerset and Takoma Park, which allow such people to cast ballots in municipal elections.
According to the latest available census statistics, as of 2000 there were 155 foreign-born residents of the town who were not U.S. citizens. The town's population according to the latest census estimates is 2,750.
"Since we pay our local taxes, we should participate in decisions regarding the town," said Le Dem, who works at the International Monetary Fund. He and Kessler, who works at the World Bank, pay property taxes but not income taxes.
At the Town Council meeting on June 10, council members asked legal counsel David Podolsky to investigate amending the town's charter to allow legal aliens like Le Dem and Kessler the right to vote. The amendment requires public notice and a public hearing, and the charter amendment would go into effect 50 days after approval by the council. There are three council seats open in the town's elections next year.
Podolsky indicated it could take "a month or two" for his staff to work out the amendment's legal details.
Councilman David Lublin, a government professor at American University who studies elections, said in places where legal aliens are allowed to vote in local elections in the United States, turnout is usually low. He said while linking citizenship to voting rights was traditional in the United States, tying voting rights to payment of taxes did not seem like a "very American practice." The town levies property taxes but not income taxes.
"We have to see how the people who are citizens and the voters of the town feel about it," Lublin said.
Town resident David Steeds, a native of England who became a U.S. citizen just over two years ago, voted in the last two town elections.
"It's just a matter of inclusiveness," Steeds said.
Elsewhere, Walter Behr, a former mayor of Somerset, said the town had allowed legal aliens to vote since 1959 and was proud of it.
"They are obviously just as interested in our parklands, our tennis courts, our streets, our trees, our safety…as anyone else," Behr said.
Bonnie Thomson, chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors for Somerset's elections, said the policy has never been controversial. She noted that legal aliens usually moved to the community for professional reasons. The latest census statistics from 2000 show 134 foreign-born residents of Somerset out of a population of approximately 1,100, although some of the 134 residents could be naturalized U.S. citizens.
Takoma Park's City Council voted 5-1 in February 1992 to allow legal aliens to vote in mayoral and council elections. Supporters of the move included current County Council members and Takoma Park residents Marc Elrich (D-At large) and George Leventhal (D-At large).