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Rep. Anastasia Williams went before the House Judiciary Committee May 16 to propose that Rhode Island voters be asked to approve an amendment to the state Constitution that would give voting rights to non-citizens who are legal residents. She said the Ocean State wouldn't be the first to do so.
"In 2011, Alabama and Massachusetts passed this legislation," she told the committee.
That statement surprised us. If non-citizens in Massachusetts were eligible to vote in state and local elections, we thought we would have heard about it.
We decided to investigate.
In her testimony, Williams said the intent of the proposal "is to give every legal resident of the state of Rhode Island the opportunity to be properly represented" when they are abiding by the law and paying taxes. She asserted that some elected officials won't help residents who aren't registered voters.
(She reported that her Cuban mother was a legal resident who declined to seek citizenship out of fear of losing her ties to her country of origin.)
Currently, only U.S. citizens can vote in federal, state and local elections in Rhode Island. Under the bill Williams supports, if voters amended the Constitution, legal permanent residents -- holders of the so-called "green card" -- would also be allowed to vote, after 30 days of residency.
When we called Williams, she said the information came from the General Assembly's Legislative Council, which aids in drafting and researching legislation.
House spokesman Larry Berman said the legislative research department made a mistake in a memo to Williams, with the wording suggesting that the proposals had become law in those states. They had not.
In the meantime, we spoke with Brian McNiff, spokesman for the Massachusetts secretary of state's office and Julie Sinclair, a lawyer with the elections division of the Alabama secretary of state's office. Both confirmed that only citizens can vote in their states and both said an amendment to the state Constitution would be required to change that.
Berman said the research that Williams relied upon from the General Assembly staff had been based on two bills, H-3430 in Massachusetts and SB-256 in Alabama.
We tracked them down.
The Massachusetts bill never got out of committee and called for permanent resident voting only in the town of Brookline.
The reference to the Alabama legislation, a broad immigration bill, is even less relevant. As introduced, it specifically said that only citizens should be allowed to vote, the opposite of how Williams represented it. It did not make any reference to giving voting rights to permanent legal residents. And when it passed the Senate, the reference to who should be allowed to vote had been removed.
So not only did the two pieces of legislation not become law, neither sought to give green-card holders the right to vote in statewide elections.
Rep. Anastasia Williams, advocating for her proposal to extend state and local voting rights to non-citizens who are permanent legal residents, told a House Judiciary Committee hearing, "In 2011, Alabama and Massachusetts passed this legislation."
Williams said, and House spokesman Larry Berman confirmed, that she was relying on information from the General Assembly's Legislative Council, which should be a reliable source.
In fact, the information Williams received was inaccurate. Neither state took such action.
"At the time I made this statement, I relied on the inaccurate information that was provided to me," Williams said in a comment released Thursday. "This statement was not made intentionally."
Said House Speaker Gordon Fox, "It is unfortunate that Representative Williams was quoting inaccurate information provided to her by a staff person and I am addressing this issue internally.".
One last thought: we were surprised that a veteran legislator wasn't suspicious about the claim, given that Massachusetts is a neighbor and Alabama is known for having one of the nation's harshest laws against illegal immigrants.
We rate her statement False.
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RILIN.state.RI.US, "2012 -- Joint Resolution To Approve and Publish and Submit to the Electors a Proposition of Amendment to the Constitution of the State (Suffrage)," accessed May 22, 2012
Interview, Rep. Anastasia Williams, May 22, 2012
Interview, Brian McNiff, spokesman, secretary of state's office, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, May 22, 2012
Interview, Julie Sinclair, elections division, Alabama secretary of state's office, May 23, 2012
Interviews, Larry Berman, spokesman, Rhode Island House, May 23, 2012
AlisonDB.legislature.state.AL.US, "SB256," accessed May 23, 2012
LegiScan.com, "Legislative Detail: AL Senate Bill 256 - Regular Session 2011," accessed May 23, 2012
LegiScan.com, "Legislative Detail: MA House Bill 3430 - 187th General Court," accessed May 23, 2012
ImmigrantVoting.org, "Democracy for All: Restoring Immigrant Voting Rights in the US," New Political Science, December 2004, accessed May 23, 2012
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