WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Friday, Jan. 20, the Vermont Supreme Court upheld a statute authorizing noncitizens who are legal U.S. residents in Montpelier, Vermont to vote in local elections. This ruling affirmed a lower court’s decision that found the law complies with the state constitution. The Montpelier statute at issue states that “any person may register to vote in Montpelier City elections who on election day is a citizen of the United States or a legal resident of the United States,” specifically defining a “legal resident” as someone “who resides in the United States on a permanent or indefinite basis in compliance with federal immigration laws.” Friday’s decision stems from a lawsuit filed by the Republican National Committee, the Vermont Republican Party and voters challenging the statute — which was passed as a charter amendment by voters in 2018 and approved for implementation by the Vermont General Assembly in 2021 after it overrode the governor’s veto — for violating the Vermont Constitution. In April 2022, a trial court rejected the Republican plaintiffs’ argument that the challenged statute violates the state constitution and dismissed the lawsuit. The Republicans appealed this decision to the Vermont Supreme Court, which affirmed the trial court’s decision in its Jan. 20 ruling, meaning that Montpelier’s noncitizen voting statute remains in place.
In its unanimous opinion, the Vermont Supreme Court concluded that “the statute allowing noncitizens to vote in local Montpelier elections does not violate [the Vermont Constitution] because that constitutional provision does not apply to local elections.” The court held that although the Republican plaintiffs had standing (meaning capacity to bring their lawsuit), the merits of their claims failed. Specifically, the opinion noted that the provision of the Vermont Constitution that the plaintiffs rely on to argue that the state constitution prohibits noncitizens from voting does not apply to local elections and thus would not apply to the challenged Montpelier statute in this case because it only concerns local elections. The opinion stated that legal precedent in two relevant cases created “a distinction between statewide and local elections for purposes of the Vermont Constitution’s voting requirements.” Based on this, “[w]hen we review our precedents and carefully employ settled principles of constitutional construction, we come to the conclusion that [the cited provision] of the Vermont Constitution does not apply to municipal elections” and the “Plaintiffs’ constitutional claim was accordingly correctly dismissed by the trial court.”
This historic ruling comes as many other municipalities across the country are passing amendments and enacting laws to allow noncitizens to vote in local elections. These reforms have engendered backlash from Republicans and conservative groups, sometimes in the form of lawsuits. For instance, Republicans have mounted legal challenges to New York City’s law that allows noncitizens to vote in municipal elections, resulting in a court decision to block the law for violating the state constitution. This decision was appealed and litigation over the law remains ongoing.