Refugee Organizing Helps Spur Noncitizen Voting in Vermont Cities

Three Vermont cities now allow all residents with legal status to vote in local elections, giving them a voice in everything from school boards to the structure of their municipal government.

Piper French   |    September 28, 2023

A Vermont voter casts his ballot on Tuesday, March 5, 2013. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

Growing up in Vermont, my first encounter with direct democracy was the town meeting. Once a year in March, my parents and our neighbors gathered in the pews of our bucolic town hall to elect local officials and hammer out decisions about taxes, roads, budgets, and schools. The process was open to any resident of voting age who cared to attend—as long as they were a registered voter and U.S. citizen. Afterward, the whole town congregated downstairs for a potluck. 

Though they exist primarily in New England, town meetings are a familiar symbol of small-scale democratic experiment to many Americans. Norman Rockwell used his Vermont neighbors as subjects for his 1943 painting Freedom of Speech, which depicts a rough-hewn worker standing to speak his truth as genteel men in suits listen carefully—so instantly recognizable it has, in recent years, become a meme. This sort of robust floor discussion only happens in Vermont’s towns, but every municipality in the state has a Town Meeting Day to vote on local matters.

Lately, parts of Vermont have looked to expand the promise of a vibrant local democracy and invite noncitizens to participate as well. Three cities now allow all residents with legal status to vote in local elections, making decisions on Town Meeting Day about everything from the composition of their local school board to the structure of their municipal government. (Noncitizens remain barred from weighing in on statewide or national elections). In 2018, residents of Montpelier, the state capital, voted by a 2-1 margin to establish noncitizen voting. In 2020, Winooski, a small city outside of Burlington where many resettled refugees reside, followed suit, and by the same wide margin. After state lawmakers approved those local charter changes in 2021, Republican Governor Phil Scott vetoed both measures but the legislature quickly overrode his denials. 

Burlington, the state’s largest city, approved a similar charter amendment in early 2023—also by a 2-1 margin. Lawmakers again overrode Scott’s veto of the change, voting in June to approve extending the right to vote in local elections to 2,000 additional Burlington residents. 

These rapid reforms have made Vermont home to nearly a fifth of all U.S. municipalities to offer noncitizen voting. Several towns in Maryland allow noncitizen residents to participate in local elections, most notably Takoma Park since the early 1990s; more recently, Washington, D.C., Oakland, San Francisco, and New York City passed similar ordinances, though local judges overturned the latter two last year.

Proponents of noncitizen voting say all residents deserve a say in who runs the schools their children attend and how the city spends their money. “The types of decisions that you make at a municipal level—you are impacted by them the same way regardless of if you’re a citizen or if you’re not a citizen,” said Zoraya Hightower, a city councilor in Burlington who supports the practice, calling it a “no-brainer.” Meanwhile, the new laws have sparked backlash ranging from frustrated locals to a national conservative group that has sued to block noncitizen voting. 

“All resident voting,” as it is often called here in Vermont, has also provoked debates about what constitutes meaningful political representation and the role of voting in civic life. Vermont’s progressive reputation has historically been untested on issues like race and immigration: it is one of the whitest states in the country, second only to Maine. “There’s an imagination of Vermont as being a particular kind of white liberal oasis,” said Pablo Bose, director of the University of Vermont’s Global and Regional Studies Program, who works with refugee communities in Winooski and Burlington. “People talk a good game about class and race, but I don’t actually think that they confront how different it might be in a place like this if you have a different background.”

Over the last few decades, Vermont has become a new home for many immigrant communities: resettled refugees who hail from places like Bhutan, Somalia, and Democratic Republic of Congo, Mexican farmworkers who toil on Vermont’s historic dairy farms, and most recently, asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Ukraine. Like any community, their views on noncitizen voting are not uniform: some believe voting should be tied to citizenship, while others have chosen to build political power in other ways. 

Those new Vermonters who have embraced noncitizen voting see it as a crucial step towards full participation in civic life and a chance to weigh in on the practical matters facing their city. 

Jeetan Khadka, a former refugee from Bhutan who has championed noncitizen voting in Burlington’s local elections for nearly a decade, invoked the Burlington school district as an example: “There are hundreds of kids of non English-speaking parents—who is going to be their voice? Who’s going to represent them?” 

Khadka and his family arrived in Vermont from a Nepalese refugee camp 15 years ago this September, becoming members of a regrettably selective group; worldwide, less than 1 percent of refugees ever experience resettlement. Compared to other U.S. states, Vermont has accepted a high number of refugees relative to its tiny population: Between 1989 and 2019, the state took in around 8,000 refugees from across the globe, according to Seven Days, a Vermont publication. Most of them were resettled in Burlington and Winooski, two of the three cities that have enacted noncitizen voting. 

In high school, I volunteered at the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, a subset of the U.S. agency responsible for resettling refugees, helping with childcare for a Congolese family who had arrived in Vermont a year earlier. In some ways, they were lucky: as officially designated refugees, they had a clear pathway to citizenship, and the government helped get them set up with an apartment and temporary financial assistance. But a whole set of obstacles still lay ahead of them: learning English, finding jobs, adjusting to the bitter cold of Vermont winters, and, after years in a sprawling refugee camp in Mozambique, starting over in a place with few other people who so much as looked like them, let alone shared their culture. 

Students of color now represent the majority at the Winooski school district, thanks in large part to the city’s robust refugee population. The Burlington school district also boasts that its student body speaks dozens of different languages at home. But Khadka remembers being sequestered in an English language learning program with other refugee students when he arrived in Burlington in 2008. “You are literally depriving someone to have that cross cultural conversation,” he said. 

Frustration at how he and his refugee peers were isolated from the rest of the student body pushed him to get involved in civic life for the first time. “Seeing injustice happening or seeing unfair treatment or seeing or hearing things that doesn’t feel right to myself—I started speaking up,” he told me. 

After high school, Khadka stayed on for a year through Americorps, working on culturally responsive pedagogy for the school district’s preschool program. His second year at Americorps, he started working at the Community & Economic Development Office at city hall, right next to the mayor’s office. Today, Khadka works as a caseworker for the Association of Africans Living in Vermont, which serves refugee communities in the state regardless of national origin, and sits on the Vermont New American Advisory Council, which he helped found. 

Bose, the UVM professor, said it’s not uncommon for resettled refugees to become deeply involved in their communities. Over time, he told me, “we’ve seen increased participation on things like city boards…neighborhood planning assemblies, [and] in other kinds of ways around the neighborhoods—starting up new businesses, getting involved in local community organizations.” 

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Khadka got involved in pushing for noncitizen voting in Burlington in 2014, after his application to serve on a city commission was rejected due to his immigration status. He calls participation in local elections “a stepping stone for something bigger” for noncitizen residents. Many refugees are eligible to gain U.S. citizenship after a yearslong waiting period, and Khadka said it’s important to start the process of political and civic engagement early. 

“You are encouraging people to be part of local, municipal government, encouraging them to go out and share your concern, raise your voice, vote for the candidate that supports your voice,” he told me. 

Burlington voters rejected noncitizen voting at their annual town meeting in 2015. Five years later, it came back before the city council, which chose to put the question to voters before reversing its decision and sending it back to a committee for further study. One of the people who voted against the measure both times was Ali Dieng, a independent city councilor and himself a former refugee from Mauritania. He did so because, as a freshly naturalized U.S. citizen, he felt that voting was a sort of prize that comes with full citizenship. At the time, he also said he feared that creating a registry of noncitizen residents would be unwise given ICE’s increased targeting of immigrant communities under the Trump administration.  

But in 2022, when noncitizen voting again went before the Burlington council, Dieng chose to back it. In the time since his last vote, Montpelier and Winooski had both passed noncitizen voting, and Trump had left office. Dieng says he had also talked to more refugee constituents who told him they supported the measure. 

“I think there is nothing more beautiful than becoming an American citizen, it’s still a great thing,” he said. “But this is just for the municipality of the City of Burlington—and people who live here who are paying taxes, have their kids in the schools.” 

With Dieng’s support, the council set up a vote by Burlingtonians during the city’s Town Meeting Day in March 2023. Of the roughly 10,500 residents who voted on Question 4, 68 percent approved the measure and expanded the electorate for future Town Meeting Days. 

Noncitizen voting, especially at the local level, was common throughout the U.S. during the 19th century; it has existed at various points in around 40 states. The Vermont supreme court upheld the constitutionality of local noncitizen voting in 1863. But by the 1890s, xenophobia about the arrival of migrants from non-Western countries caused states to definitively start banning noncitizens from participating in elections.

The reintroduction of noncitizen voting in the modern era has proved predictably controversial, inflaming tensions around immigration and voting rights, both major Republican bugbears. Restoring Integrity and Trust in Elections (RITE), a national group founded by Karl Rove and led by, among others, former Trump attorney general William Barr, has sued to block noncitizen voting in Winooski. In January, the Vermont supreme court upheld Montpelier’s charter amendment and allowed noncitizen voting in another lawsuit filed by the Republican National Committee and state GOP attempting to block it. 

Shades of the hyper-polarized national discourse around voting rights and immigration have appeared locally as well. Election workers say they have encountered people at the polls who express anger about voting alongside noncitizen residents in every election cycle since it’s been implemented. Winooski city clerk Jenny Willingham, who has overseen the implementation of noncitizen voting there since 2022, told me that a few voters each election have arrived at the polls incensed by the concept, telling her they believe only U.S. citizens should be able to vote. “The numbers weren’t a lot. It was just the intensity of their opposition to it,” she said. Willingham added, however, that the anger seemed stronger last year when noncitizen voting was brand new. 

Today, Winooski has 61 registered noncitizen voters, Willingham told me. Some of the town’s initial noncitizen voters have since become citizens or moved away. Turnout is still quite low compared to the overall number of noncitizen residents eligible to vote (Winooski has over 1,100 foreign-born residents, though a good number are either under 18 or already possess citizenship). In response, Willingham says that Winooski is working on improving outreach about noncitizen voting to residents who might be eligible, and considering offering ballots in even more languages. 

“I’m just trying to do more,” Willingham said. “Bring the polls to them, rather than having them come to the polls.” 

Nearly everyone I spoke to for this piece emphasized that establishing noncitizen voting isn’t necessarily a victory in and of itself. “I think it’s valuable symbolically,” Bose, the UVM professor, told me. “I think that it can signal to people, you know, ‘You are valued here.’” But he says awareness of the new laws around noncitizen voting are generally low, and suspects that Vermont’s immigrant and refugee populations would be more likely to care about voting if they had the sense that their participation could meaningfully affect election outcomes. Unlike in New York City—where a judge struck down noncitizen voting on the basis that extending the franchise to some 800,000 noncitizen residents with permanent status or work authorization would plausibly dilute citizens’ votes—there is relatively little chance that votes from noncitizen Vermonters could sway the results of elections. 

Moreover, much more outreach and education about the new laws will need to be done before there’s even a chance of refugee parents becoming a constituency to be reckoned with in a Winooski or Burlington school board election. One Afghan asylum seeker living in Winooski, who asked to withhold his name because his asylum case is pending and his family is still in Pakistan, told me that he had had no idea that legal residents were eligible to vote in local elections in the three cities, but said that he was excited to pass the information along to other Afghan families living in Winooski and Montpelier who have their green cards already. “It’s a great thing,” he said, adding that he looked forward to participating if he eventually secures a green card.

Khadka says “invisible walls” block some noncitizen residents from voting even when they’re eligible. People of his parents’ and grandparents’ generation can also be plagued by memories of the harsh consequences they faced for trying to participate in politics. “There is some trauma in that, that people who are deprived of that and were being tortured by like the political superpower of their country—they are scared, some people are scared to participate,” he said. “You know, ‘remember what happened 20 years ago, when you asked for your right—you got kicked out of the country.’” 

While Vermont has expanded the franchise to noncitizen residents, other immigrant communities are still left out of local elections that directly impact them. The state is also home to as many as 1,500 migrant farmworkers, mostly undocumented men from Mexico and Central America who still cannot vote in local elections. Noncitizen voting “won’t really change anything for our community,” said Marita Canedo, the program coordinator for the group Migrant Justice. 

In the absence of ballot access, farmworkers working with Migrant Justice have found other ways to build economic and political power. For more than a decade, they have built campaigns connecting their backbreaking labor to the historic Vermont dairy industry and secured huge material wins, such as the extension of drivers’ licenses to undocumented Vermonters, solid labor agreements with Ben & Jerry’s, and stronger firewalls between local police and immigration enforcement. 

Canedo said that for now, migrant farmworkers in the state seem far from having any hope of inclusion in the political process through voting or running candidates from their community. “Right now our community is looking to survive, day by day,” she said. “Every campaign that we had has been a small step into the freedom of people.” There is more work to be done, she said, “for people to really feel that, ‘okay, now I can think about bigger things. Now that I know I can be in a safe place and you know, how to organize my farm or in my workplace—what other bigger things we can dream.’” 

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