This legislative session, members of the Maryland state legislature from Montgomery County will have an opportunity to start a conversation about suffrage and representation. When the 2016 session starts on January 13th, legislators will consider local bill MC 25-16, which would amend the Maryland Constitution to give the Montgomery County Council greater autonomy over voter eligibility requirements for County elections. Specifically, it would allow the County to expand voting rights to non-citizen residents, as well as 16 and 17 year olds, for Board of Education elections.
Should the measure pass in the Maryland state legislature, it would still require voter approval in the form of a statewide ballot measure. It is just one of a number of local bills that are intended to empower Montgomery County voters, including a bill that would expand the number of early voting sites, and another that would enable the County to adopt ranked choice voting for County Executive and County Council special elections.
Expanding suffrage in this manner isn’t a new idea; in fact, doing so would not be the first time members of either of these groups gained some level of suffrage in Montgomery County. The city of Takoma Park—located in Montgomery County—expanded suffrage to non-citizen residents long ago, and further expanded suffrage to 16 and 17 year olds in 2013 for its municipal elections. This came after the city passed a “Right to Vote Resolution” as community leaders considered ways to uphold voting as a fundamental right at the local level.
Other communities in Maryland also permit all voting age residents to vote, include Chevy Chase, Garrett Park, and Somerset among others. Hyattsville, in neighboring Prince George’s County, joined Takoma Park in lowering its local voting age to 16 in 2015. Although some have expressed administrative concerns with needing one voter roll for local elections and another for state and federal elections, Takoma Park will likely be moving their municipal elections to even years to capitalize on higher turnout. Thus, the County will need to address the voter roll issue regardless. And when it comes to suffrage, administrative challenges should never mean compromising democratic values.
FairVote has long advocated for an amendment to the United States Constitution to establish an explicit, individual right to vote. We also advocate for and have played a key role in advancing local legislation to lower the voting age. While FairVote does not have an official position on voting rights for non-citizen residents, a longstanding commitment to voting as a fundamental right demands an openness to the idea of expanding voting rights to all members of a community that have a stake in who leads them. Because voting is so important and fundamental to a well-functioning democracy, it is essential that we apply strict scrutiny when denying voting rights, rather than strict scrutiny in granting them.
Issues like this should be part of a larger community discussion about representation. We’ve seen these discussions take place at the national level before--most recently in 1971 when the 26th amendment was passed to expand suffrage to 18-year-olds. Montgomery County’s democracy will be better off if a space for such a discussion is created and voters can weigh in via a ballot measure. The Maryland General Assembly has an opportunity to start that discussion, and in the spirit of recognizing voting as a fundamental right, they should do so.
Image Source: Erik Hersman