THE HISTORY OF IMMIGRANT VOTING RIGHTS IN VERMONT
The Immigrant Voting Project and
New York University Law Students for Human Rights
Resident Noncitizen Voting in Vermont:
The Vermont Constitution of 1777, in which Vermont declared itself an independent state, reflected its drafters’ desire to make suffrage broadly inclusive. Although Vermont’s founders modeled their Constitution on Pennsylvania’s Constitution, they deleted the property qualification for voters that appeared in the Pennsylvania Constitution and the laws of many of the 13 colonies. The drafters also prohibited slavery in the first Article of the Constitution, making Vermont the first government in America to do so, and, although suffrage rights were defined by gender, the Constitution did not explicitly require electors to be white. Finally, the Vermont Constitution included provisions for alien suffrage. The Constitution of 1777 gave foreign men all the rights of native-born freemen after they fulfilled a residency requirement of one year and took an oath of allegiance.
After Vermont became a state in the new United States, it continued its tradition of alien suffrage in its Constitution of 1793. In the following decades, however, legislators worried that the language of Vermont’s Constitution, by granting aliens all rights of native-born citizens, would be interpreted as effectively naturalizing them, therefore coming into conflict with the exclusive naturalization powers of the new United States Congress. In 1828, Vermont amended its Constitution to address this concern, adopting new language tying citizenship to voting, while allowing existing alien voters to retain their suffrage rights.[6
Today the Vermont Constitution retains the language of U.S. citizenship in its voting provisions, reading:
“Every person of the full age of eighteen years who is a citizen of the United States, having resided in this State for the period established by the General Assembly and who is of a quiet and peaceable behavior, and will take the following oath or affirmation, shall be entitled to all the privileges of a voter of this state.”
Although state-wide voting rights were linked to U.S. citizenship after 1828, non-citizens continued to participate as voters and government officials at the local level. In Woodcock v. Bolster, decided in 1863, the Vermont Supreme Court considered whether voting by aliens in school and town elections conflicted with the Constitution. The court noted that, although only “freemen,” constitutionally defined as U.S. citizens, could vote in state-wide elections, the state electoral laws for town meeting and school district elections did not refer to “freemen” but instead used the terms “male person” and “man.” After declaring the practice of local non-citizen voting to be in keeping with the state Constitution and laws, the court commented on the policy arguments advanced by the challenger:
“It is also urged, that, upon general principles of public policy, unnaturalized foreigners should not be allowed this limited right to vote and hold office; that with so little education as they usually have, and such limited knowledge of the principles and policy of our government as they possess, there is danger in allowing them to exercise even so small a share in the government and management of our educational and municipal institutions…. But we are not satisfied that the objection itself is sound.
…. It has been the policy of our government to encourage emigration from abroad, and, at as early a period as may be, to extend to such emigrants all the rights of citizenship, that their feelings and interests may become identified with the government and the country. While awaiting the time when they are to become entitled to the full rights of citizenship, it seems to us a wise policy in the Legislature to allow them to participate in the affairs of these minor municipal corporations, as in some degree a preparatory fitting and training for the exercise of the more important and extensive rights and duties of citizens. It is of the greatest importance that the children of such persons should be educated, at least to the extent for which opportunity is afforded by our common schools, and that the parents should be induced to send their children to school, and it seems to us that they would be much more likely to do so, and to take interest in their attendance and improvement, if allowed to participate in their regulation and management, than if wholly excluded.”
Vermont’s state elections law has changed since the days of Woodcock v. Bolster.Although the law previously contained different sections describing the qualifications for state-level and municipal-level voters, the qualifications for voting in all elections within the state are now the same. Following a general revision in 1977, Vermont election law states that those who are U.S. citizens, have taken the voter’s oath, are residents of Vermont, and are 18 years of age or older, “may register to vote in the town of his residence in any election held in a political subdivision of this state in which he resides.” Accordingly, while current non-citizens voting rights campaigns can draw on Vermont’s history of non-citizen voting, they may need to seek a change in the state electoral law in order to allow non-citizens to register to vote in town or school elections.
 Paul Gillies, Not Quite a State of Nature: Derivations of Early Vermont Law, 23 Vt. L. Rev. 99, 113-114 (1998).
 Id. at 116-117.
 Gerald L. Neuman, “We Are the People”: Alien Suffrage in German and American Perspective, 13 Mich. J. Int’l L. 259 (1992) at 293-4. The 1777 Constitution provided that, “Every foreigner of good character, who comes to settle in this State, having first taken an oath or affirmation of allegiance to the same, may purchase, or by other just means acquire, hold, and transfer, land, or other real estate; and after one years residence, shall be deemed a free denizen of this State; except that he shall not be capable of being elected a representative, until after two years residence.” Vt. Const., Ch. II, Sec. 38 (1777).
 Id. at 294.
 Id. at 294.
 Id. at 294. The amendment of 1828 provided that, “No person, who is not already a freeman of this State, shall be entitled to exercise the privilege of a freeman, unless he be a natural-born citizen of this or someone of the United States, or until he shall have been naturalized agreeably to the acts of Congress.” Vt. Const. of 1793 amend. I (1828).
 Vt. Const. Ch. II, §42. Note that Vermont’s one-year durational residency requirement for prospective voters, previously contained in Ch. II, §34 of the Vermont Constitution, was struck down as an unconstitutional limitation on the right to vote and the right to travel interstate. Kohn v. Davis, 320 F. Supp. 246 (D. Vt. 1970), affirmed, 405 U.S. 1034, 92 S. Ct. 1305, 31 L. Ed. 2d 576 (1972).
 Woodcock v. Bolster, 35 Vt. 632 (Vt. 1863).
 Vt. St. T. 17, Ch. 43, §2121. See also Vt. St. T. 17, §2656, providing that “Regardless of the type of voting used, the qualifications to vote in any municipal election shall be as provided in chapter 43 of this title and all municipalities shall revise and post checklists as provided in chapter 43 of this title prior to any municipal meeting at which there will be voting. The presiding officer shall follow reasonable and necessary procedures to ensure that persons who are not voters of the town do not vote.”