Think globally, act locally

When my wife and I are asked what we do, we sometime joke that my job is to "think globally," while her job is to "act locally." Translation: in addition to working as a consultant to a number of foundations and think tanks, my wife (Rebecca Stone) is also a member of Brookline’s "Town Meeting." ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images

When my wife and I are asked what we do, we sometime joke that my job is to "think globally," while her job is to "act locally." Translation: in addition to working as a consultant to a number of foundations and think tanks, my wife (Rebecca Stone) is also a member of Brookline's "Town Meeting." A Town Meeting is a venerable New England institution; in our case, it is a 250-person body of elected representatives that debates and approves major town initiatives.  

But sometimes our concerns overlap. A month or so ago, when the Park 51 controversy was stoking the growing fires of xenophobia and nativist prejudice, my response was to write a few blog posts about the issue. Big deal. But she decided to do something more concrete. Specifically, she drafted and sponsored a "warrant article" to be considered and voted upon at the next Town Meeting. Her proposal would amend the town's by-laws and give permanent legal residents ("green card holders") the right to vote in local (i.e., town-wide) elections.

You can read all about it here.

When my wife and I are asked what we do, we sometime joke that my job is to "think globally," while her job is to "act locally." Translation: in addition to working as a consultant to a number of foundations and think tanks, my wife (Rebecca Stone) is also a member of Brookline’s "Town Meeting." A Town Meeting is a venerable New England institution; in our case, it is a 250-person body of elected representatives that debates and approves major town initiatives.  

But sometimes our concerns overlap. A month or so ago, when the Park 51 controversy was stoking the growing fires of xenophobia and nativist prejudice, my response was to write a few blog posts about the issue. Big deal. But she decided to do something more concrete. Specifically, she drafted and sponsored a "warrant article" to be considered and voted upon at the next Town Meeting. Her proposal would amend the town’s by-laws and give permanent legal residents ("green card holders") the right to vote in local (i.e., town-wide) elections.

You can read all about it here.

Notice that this proposal is not about giving the right to vote to undocumented aliens, tourists, or temporary visa holders. Nor would it permit green card holders to vote in state-wide or national elections or to run for office. Rather, it is about a single town giving people who are permanent legal residents (the vast majority of whom are taxpayers, including property taxes), the opportunity to participate in local elections only. Most permanent legal residents eventually become naturalized citizens after the requisite waiting period, and permitting them to vote in local elections is also a way to encourage greater civic participation. 

Equally important, it is a way to signal that America remains a country that welcomes people from overseas. It reminds us that we are a country whose very existence, past achievements, and future prospects rest on attracting and integrating future citizens from all over the world. Money quotation:

"A number of legal immigrants pay property taxes and send their children to public schools in Brookline, Stone said, and she believes allowing them to vote in local elections is a way to honor their commitment to the community.

"It may sound schmaltzy, but that’s why I did it,” said Stone, who is also an elected Town Meeting member. "I just got tired of complaining about what everybody else was saying. I figured it’s a small thing to do. It’s a small gesture. But it’s a step in the right direction.”

There are also ample historical precedents for this arrangement. The Constitution is silent on this issue, but the Federal government has long given states and local communities the right to determine suffrage over state and local elections, and over forty different states permitted various forms of local non-citizen voting between 1776 and 1926. Both New York and Chicago have allowed permanent legal residents to vote in local elections as well, as have many other communities.

Massachusetts is a "home rule" state, which means that if the warrant article passes, then the town must petition the State legislature for final approval. Previous petitions from other communities have not been acted upon (if you know anything about the legislature here, that won’t surprise you), but a number of other communities are considering similar measures and we may be seeing a turn of the tide. 

In any case, the next time you hear about Newt Gingrich or some other fear-mongering blowhard trying to makes us more suspicious of anyone born elsewhere, be aware that there are other Americans working, in their own communities, to counter such poisonous attitudes. And needless to say, I couldn’t be prouder.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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