Noncitizens Should Get Vote, Too, Mayor Says
Latinos Fault Access To D.C. Services
By a Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 1, 2002; Page B01
Mayor Anthony A. Williams said yesterday that noncitizens in the District should be allowed to vote in local elections, as a Latino coalition issued a report complaining that Hispanics lacked services and access to local government.
"I'm committed to expanding the franchise," said Williams (D), who appeared at a news conference sponsored by the Council of Latino Agencies. He said the city needs to develop a new standard for voting -- "but it isn't citizenship."
When the council's executive director, Eugenio Arene, suggested that all local taxpayers be allowed to cast ballots, the mayor added: "Sounds like a good standard to me."
The mayor's statement came just weeks after Rockville officials announced that they were studying the possibility of extending voting rights to noncitizens. Several communities across the nation allow legal immigrants to cast ballots in local elections, including five municipalities in Maryland: Takoma Park, Somerset, Chevy Chase, Martin's Additions and Barnesville.
Supporters say the move allows burgeoning immigrant communities to have more of a voice in their towns and cities. But critics say it removes an incentive for them to become citizens.
The report by the Council of Latino Agencies identifies lack of political participation as a key problem for Latinos in Washington. It says that there were only about 5,000 registered voters with Hispanic surnames in the District -- or less than 2 percent of the total -- although about 8 percent of residents are Hispanic, according to the Census Bureau.
That low level of voter registration reflects, in part, the youth of the Latino population. But many Hispanic immigrants simply don't qualify to cast ballots.
Some are here illegally -- an estimated 5 to 15 percent of the Latino population, according to the report. Others are stuck in legal limbo because of special U.S. government programs that have given many Central Americans the right to work here but not an easy way to get citizenship.
Expanding political participation for Latinos is one of four main recommendations in the council's report, which attempts to draw a comprehensive statistical profile of the city's Hispanic community.
The other recommendations call on the District to improve its data collection on Latinos, provide more bilingual services and increase the number of Latino employees in city jobs. Currently, they make up just 1.8 percent of workers on the D.C. payroll, according to the study.
"The Latino community remains invisible in statistics, policy and governance and in all the service areas," said Arene, whose group represents dozens of organizations that provide health, legal and other services to the local Hispanic community.
He said that "there had been some positive changes" under Williams, such as a big increase in the budget of the city's Office of Latino Affairs, and the hiring of more bilingual police officers. But those steps are not enough, he said.
Maria Gomez, president of the Council of Latino Agencies, said the report provides an arsenal of data that would be used to promote policies to help the Hispanic population. The report says the District's Latinos are suffering from the high cost of housing, a lack of health insurance and a school system that doesn't focus enough on them -- even though the number of Latino youths in D.C. schools increased by 50 percent over a decade to nearly 6,400. Nearly three-quarters of the students have limited English proficiency, the report says.
Asked about extending the vote to noncitizens, Williams pledged to work with local government officials and experts on the idea and said he hoped it would be possible in elections "for mayor on down." Only U.S. citizens are allowed to vote in state and federal elections.
Williams did not say whether illegal immigrants would be included. Any change in the District's electoral law would have to be submitted to Congress for review. A spokeswoman for Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) said she wanted more specifics on the proposal before commenting.
Williams, who is running for reelection, also said his staff would meet with Latino representatives to discuss the issues raised in the report.
"We've made some strides" in helping the Latino population, Williams said, adding: "All of us recognize we have a long way to go."
© 2002 The Washington Post Company