Thetford considers allowing noncitizens to vote in local elections

By CHRISTINA DOLAN

Valley News Correspondent

Published: 12-12-2023 4:09 AM

THETFORD — Heinz and Inge Trebitz were named “Citizens of the Year” at last year’s Town Meeting for their longstanding service to Thetford, but they were ineligible to vote at the meeting.

Selectboard member Steven Tofel is among those who would like to see the Trebitzs, who live in Thetford and are citizens of Germany, allowed to participate in municipal elections in the future.

The Trebitzs have given a “tremendous amount of time and energy to our community,” Tofel said in an audio recording of Thetford’s Dec. 4 evening Selectboard meeting. “To let them vote in local elections I think does not go over the edge.”

If Thetford were to make the change, it would be the fourth Vermont municipality to do so, after Burlington, Winooski and Montpelier.

Unlike those towns, though, Thetford does not have a governing charter, which complicates the process.

Thetford Town Manager Brian Story said that “the charter is typically the mechanism used for modifying state statutes at the local level,” allowing some variation and local control. “So far we haven’t needed” to have a charter, he said.

Story, in a phone interview, said he was uncertain how many noncitizen residents live in Thetford. “I don’t think there are too many, but we know that it is not zero,” he said.

He said that the town’s discussion was motivated by the question of “whether we are doing well by our permanent-resident noncitizens, and if we can do better.”

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Heinz Trebitz spoke at the meeting in support of allowing noncitizen residents who legally reside in the U.S. to vote on local issues.

“We are all immigrants,” said Trebitz. Whether we arrived long ago or recently, he continued, “we are all citizens of the town.”

Selectboard Chairwoman Sharon Harkay also spoke in favor of the measure.

“I am very much personally in favor of letting any residents who are paying taxes and living here in Thetford, I think they should be able to vote,” she said.

Support for the change was not universal.

“Absolutely not,” said resident and former Selectboard member John Bacon in response to the proposal.

Participating via Zoom, Bacon seemed to have thought he was muted and he later apologized to Trebitz, saying that “you and your wife have been superb residents of this town, and all of the awards you’ve been given are well-earned. But I’m just shocked that you aren’t an American citizen.”

Harkay noted that allowing noncitizen voting would require additional work on the part of the Town Clerk, because the process would require separate ballots for noncitizens in order to ensure that there is separation between local ballot items and state and federal items. Additionally, it is not clear how regional issues, such as those addressed by the Tri-Town Commission, of Thetford, Fairlee and West Fairlee, would be categorized for voting purposes.

Thetford resident Bill Huff, who has formerly served on the Selectboard and as a Justice of the Peace, expressed concern about logistical complications and the possibility for consequential mistakes. If, for example, an election worker accidentally gives a noncitizen voter the wrong type of ballot, “Does that mean that if we’ve got a close issue, the vote now has been tainted?”

Huff also noted that U.S. citizens who own property in Thetford, but whose permanent residence is elsewhere would undoubtedly like to be able to vote on local issues involving property taxes, so that the issue was really whether Thetford wanted to create a new class of limited-issue voters.

“In my mind, if you’re going to be eligible to vote, you should be eligible to vote for everything,” he said.

Huff noted that any noncitizen resident who wants to vote in local elections has a path available, which is to become an American citizen.

Trebitz explained that he and his wife have lived in the U.S. since 1969, and throughout most of that time the process of obtaining dual citizenship has been relatively difficult, though he acknowledged that it has become a less burdensome process in recent years.

“Maybe I want to do it for the next election,” he said.

Harkay said in an interview Wednesday that she does not have a sense of whether voters would support the issue should it come before them in March. The town first needs to sort out whether it needs to create a governing charter or whether there is another way to allow noncitizen voting.

The board is working against a deadline, as the last day to post notices for town meeting is Feb. 4.

Harkey said that “we’re not sure that we’re going to get that (legal) answer in time.”

Christina Dolan can be reached at cdolan18020@gmail.com.