Commissioner Anna Tevarrow, who campaigned on the issue, said that attaining citizenship is a difficult process that can take years. In the meantime, it's only fair to grant voting rights to legal residents who are paying taxes, receiving city services and have children enrolled in the public schools, she said.
"It seems voting would be a natural step to allow immigrants to participate in civic life," she said.
Commissioner Ben Chipman supports the proposal, noting that any measure that increases voter participation is a good thing.
Commissioner Thomas Valleau said he likes the idea in concept. He said immigrants should have some say in how their children are educated and in the delivery of city services
"Currently, they have taxation without representation," he said.
Other commissioners, though, including Jim Cohen and Richard Ranaghan Jr., say the issue would distract the commission from its primary job, which is examining the structure of city government.
Commissioner Nathan Smith said he's open to learning more about the issue but is skeptical. He said the city should put its effort into creating a system that encourages immigrants to become citizens.
"I just think that one of the hallmarks of citizenship is the franchise, the right to vote," he said. "It's an important achievement and privilege. In many ways, it's an incentive for citizenship."
At its July 30 meeting, the commission will begin deciding which topics it will focus on as it develops a proposal to submit to voters in November 2010. The issue of expanding voting rights to non-citizens is in the mix.
Nationally, there are a few communities that give non-U.S. citizens the right to vote in municipal elections, including six municipalities in Maryland. In Chicago, non-citizens can vote in school board elections.
In New York City, non-citizens voted in elections for community school boards until 2003, when a restructuring of the school system eliminated the boards.
In Massachusetts, the municipalities of Amherst, Cambridge and Newton all passed local ordinances allowing non-citizens to vote. However, the ordinances cannot go into effect unless the Massachusetts Legislature amends state law.
That might be the case in Maine as well. Whether a municipality can grant non-citizens voting rights is a complex legal issue that has never been conclusively settled, according to Julie Flynn, a deputy secretary of state who oversees the Bureau of Corporations, Elections, and Commissions.