Proposition F - Non-Citizen Voting in School Board Elections

Voter Guide
November 1, 2004
This measure appeared on the November 2004 San Francisco ballot.

 

What it does

Placed on the ballot by the Board of Supervisors, this amendment would grant parents and legal guardians of public schoolchildren who are not citizens of the United States the right to vote in San Francisco Board of Education elections.

Why it is on the ballot

This measure was placed on the ballot by the Board of Supervisors. From 1776 until the 1920s, many states in the United States allowed non-citizens to vote in elections, and even hold office in some cases, based on a desire to encourage newcomers to invest in local civic institutions as quickly as possible. San Francisco has attempted to extend voting rights to non-citizens in the past. In 1996, California 's Secretary of State ordered county voter registrars not to permit non-citizens to vote in the November elections. A judge ruled that the proposal conflicted with the California Constitution, which he interpreted as requiring U.S. citizenship in order to vote. Over the past three decades, local governments in Illinois , Maryland , Massachusetts , and New York have granted non-citizens the right to vote in some elections, most often those involving local school boards or other educational bodies. Washington , D.C. is also currently considering such a measure.

Pros

Those who support Proposition F state:

  • Educational studies show that when parents are involved in the school system, the entire school system improves. This measure would help to increase parent involvement.
  • Whether or not they are citizens, all parents have a stake in their children's education. Non-citizens should not be excluded from decisions that will affect their children's future. This is especially true for those parents who are in the midst of the multi-year bureaucratic process of becoming citizens. If parents are allowed to vote in school board elections, their concerns and issues are more likely to be heard and addressed by school board members.
  • Historically, most major steps forward in social policy have faced legal challenges. The threat of a lawsuit should not stop us from doing what we believe is right and defending it through the legal process. In any case, with the narrow focus on local school board elections, the proposal is likely stand up to a legal challenge.
  • Our democracy will benefit from bringing more people into civic life. One of the most important and beneficial changes we have made to the way we govern ourselves over the past century has been the move toward greater inclusion of different groups in the electoral process. There is little to lose by allowing more people a voice in our democracy.

Cons

Those who oppose Proposition F state:

  • The amendment is unfair to those immigrants who have fulfilled the requirements to become a U.S. citizen, a process that takes five or more years. Allowing voting rights to non-citizens will reduce the value and importance of attaining citizenship.
  • Allowing non-citizens to vote in school board elections puts the City on a slippery slope where non-citizens will receive other privileges.
  • There is no question that improving our schools should be a priority. But voting rights are not the only, nor are they the most important, way for parents to become involved in their schools. They can still participate by joining the PTA, volunteering, or through other avenues.
  • While it may make sense to allow legal non-citizen residents to vote, the City should not extend this privilege to those who are here illegally.

SPUR's analysis

Although the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) doesn't keep track of its students' citizenship status or country of origin, the district reports that 30 percent of the its students are learning English as a second language, and the latest Census reported that 37 percent of San Franciscans immigrated from abroad, so it is estimated that as many as one-third of children in the system have at least one immigrant parent.

If San Francisco voters approve the amendment, the Department of Elections would need to work with SFUSD officials to develop a list of people with children in the public schools who would be eligible to vote. According to City elections officials, the measure could be implemented in any of several ways. The department could create separate ballots for non-citizen parents to use in already scheduled general elections, or separate elections could be scheduled for school board races, an option chosen by some other local governments.

This Charter amendment does not distinguish between legal and illegal non-citizen residents. Non-citizens would be allowed to vote regardless of immigration status. This is in part due to the fact that it would be extremely difficult administratively to require that the Department of Elections monitor immigration status of potential voters.

If adopted, the proposal is expected to face court challenges by opponents who claim it is in conflict with state law. The City attorney has said the measure may very well be found to conflict with California constitutional requirements on voter eligibility. "There is a substantial likelihood that a court would conclude that the amendment conflicts with the California Constitution and is therefore invalid," the City attorney said in an advice memo. However, the City attorney also notes there is precedent for the supervisors to introduce legally questionable legislation or ballot measures to challenge the limits of a law or overturn legal precedent. "It is the prerogative of the city's elected policymakers to challenge the limits of the law ... so long as there is a cognizable legal argument in support of their challenge," the memo states.

A central legal issue involves Article 2, Section 2 of the California Constitution, which states that "A United States citizen 18 years of age and resident in this State may vote." While this statement affirms the rights of citizens to vote, it does not directly state that non-citizens cannot vote. In addition, proponents of the measure argue that Articles 9 and 11 of the California Constitution permit charter cities such as San Francisco to pass laws in areas of local concern (such as school board elections) that do not mirror state law. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that non-citizens can vote if permitted by non-federal law.

SPUR has no position on Proposition F. The SPUR board was unable to achieve the 60 percent majority needed to either support or oppose this measure. Perhaps this reflects the conflicts between deeply held values that are embedded in this issue.

SPUR has worked for decades to increase participation in the civic decision-making process. We strongly believe that a responsive, effective government requires a high level of involvement by the city's residents. Declining voter participation over recent years seems to indicate that San Franciscans are becoming less engaged in our democracy. For these reasons, we believe Proposition F has merit in that it would open participation in public decisions to a wider group, a change that would likely benefits our schools and our city as a whole.

At the same time, the relationship between citizenship and voting rights has both practical and symbolic importance. The rights and privileges of citizenship take years to earn, and obtaining citizenship is a long-established precondition to voting in any American election. Encouraging immigrants to achieve citizenship is also an important way to increase participation in civic institutions, and benefits our democracy by integrating new people into public life. Allowing non-citizens to vote in school board elections could decrease the incentive to go through the naturalization process, and undermine the achievements of those who already have.

SPUR has "No position" on Proposition F.