Proposition D - Non-Citizen Voting for School Board

Voter Guide
November 1, 2010
This measure appeared on the November 2010 San Francisco ballot.

 

What it does

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The measure would enfranchise a large number of parents and guardians who are not currently allowed to vote for school board candidates. The measure's lack of specificity, however, raises some questions about how it will be implemented. Photo by flickr user lovebuzz.

This measure establishes a pilot program, lasting from 2012 to 2016, that would allow any San Francisco resident, regardless of citizenship status, who is a parent, legal guardian or a caregiver of a child in San Francisco public schools the right to vote in San Francisco Board of Education elections. The measure would not permit anyone in prison or on parole for a felony the right to vote in such elections. The measure also does not specify if both caregivers or guardians and parents would be eligible to vote. In specific terms, this measure would allow non-citizens the right to vote in the School Board elections in 2012 and 2014, so long as the voter is a San Francisco resident who is older than 18 and a parent, guardian or caregiver of a San Francisco public school student. Citizens without children in public schools would continue to be eligible to vote in School Board elections.

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

The measure is silent on how it would be implemented, except to say that the Board of Supervisors may adopt implementing ordinances. It is likely that if voters approve Prop. D, the Department of Elections would coordinate with San Francisco Unified School District officials to develop a complete list of people with children in the public schools, and then cross check that list against the list of people who are already registered or eligible to vote in general elections. The Department of Elections could then create a separate ballot for the School Board that could be mailed to the non-citizen parents, guardians or caregivers. But since the measure is silent on how it would be implemented, it is possible that the non-citizen voters would not be limited to voting by mail, and could be allowed to vote at regular polling places.

According to the Department of Elections, the cost to the City to implement the measure could be as little as $100,000. There would be an additional unknown cost to the school district. After the pilot period, the Board of Supervisors would need to vote to continue including noncitizens as voters in these elections.

Why it is on the ballot

For many years, until the 1920s, some states allowed non-citizens to vote in elections "” and even to hold office, in some cases. Allowing noncitzens to vote was based on a desire to encourage immigrants to invest in local civic institutions as quickly as possible.

Over the past three decades, local governments in Massachusetts, Maryland, Illinois and New York have granted non-citizens the right to vote in some elections "” most often those elections involving local school boards or other educational bodies.

In California, there are no cities that allow non-citizens to vote in local elections. In 1996, a state judge struck down an attempt by some residents to allow non-citizens to vote in all municipal elections. The judge ruled that the proposal conflicted with the California Constitution, which he interpreted to require U.S. citizenship to vote.

San Francisco has attempted to extend voting rights to non-citizens in the past. In 2004, a version of this measure that did not include a sunset clause failed at the polls. SPUR did not reach a position on that measure.

Although the San Francisco Unified School District doesn't keep track of its students' citizenship status or country of origin, the school district reports that 28 percent of its 56,000 students (nearly 16,000 students) are learning English as a second language. Based on an assumption that on average, most ESL students have more than one non-citizen parent or guardian, this measure could result in an increase of 20,000 or more eligible voters in School Board elections.

This charter amendment was placed onto the ballot by a 9-2 vote of the Board of Supervisors.

Pros

  • Regardless of whether 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 multi-year process of becoming citizens. If parents are allowed to vote in School Board elections, their concerns are more likely to be addressed by School Board members.
  • This measure would help to increase parent involvement by giving all parents an opportunity to participate in the election of School Board members. Educational studies show that when parents are involved in the school system, the entire school system improves.
  • 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.
  • This measure would enfranchise a large number of parents to vote, given that the school district that has a high percentage of parents who are non-citizen immigrants.
  • Given the political stalemate nationally about immigration reform and the long bureaucratic process of naturalization, this measure is a small step that San Francisco can take to give non-citizen immigrants a deeper stake and connection to this country.
  • Passing this measure would be another action to place San Francisco in the vanguard of California cities in innovative policy reforms.

Cons

  • The California Constitution and court decisions seem clear about who may vote. Indeed, Article 2, Section 2 of the California Constitution addresses the matter succinctly: "A United States citizen 18 years of age and resident in this State may vote." In 1996, a Superior Court judge ruled that it is only citizens who can vote in public elections. Although the 1996 measure would have allowed non-citizens to vote in all San Francisco elections, there has been no change in the California Constitution that would allow non-citizens to vote in any election "” even if this measure would seek to allow that right to be exercised only in School Board elections. A School Board election is still governed by the language of the California Constitution, and that language is clear. Non-citizens certainly could vote for PTA groups or in non-public elections "” but not in public elections, which fall under the provisions of the California Constitution.
  • Passage of this measure could result in some confusion for immigrant parents who are pursuing citizenship. Nationalization forms ask would-be citizens if they have ever voted before, and include a provision that enables the Federal Immigration and Naturalization Service to deport would-be citizens if they had previously voted illegally.While passage of this measure would technically no longer make the voting illegal, this could lead to some confusion and result in many non-citizens choosing to not vote in local elections.
  • This measure is unfair to those immigrants who have fulfilled the requirements to become a U.S. citizen. Allowing voting rights to noncitizens will reduce the value and importance of attaining citizenship.
  • Defining the responsibilities of citizenship is a role for the national government, not a local city or county.
  • There is no question that engaging more parents in schools should be a priority. But voting for School Board members is far from the most important way for parents to become involved in schools. An example of a better approach would be to strengthen the participation on the parent teacher associations by non-citizen parents.
  • This measure has unclear costs to both the City and the school district. The cost to the City is at least $100,000. The current cost to the school district for a typical School Board election is between $225,000 and nearly $400,000.

SPUR's analysis

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.

This measure aims to increase participation in both the electoral process and in local education. Those are both worthwhile goals.While we understand that voting for the School Board is not the most important form of participation in schools, it is nonetheless an activity that should be open to anyone with a child in the local schools. In the early years of the United States, citizenship was not a barrier to voting in local elections. Several other communities throughout the country have already removed the citizenship barrier for voting in school board elections, and we believe the time is right for San Francisco to join those select cities.

We are concerned about a number of issues in the way this measure was written, however. First, the language of Prop. D is unclear about how many people in a household are allowed to cast a ballot. It also does not place any limitations on the number of guardians a child could claim.

Second, there remains a clause in the naturalization process that allows Federal officials to deport would-be citizens if they had previously voted illegally. This may deter some parents or guardians who are seeking to be citizens.

Third, the measure does not specify how it will be implemented, leaving open many questions about cost and the role of the school district. If the school district turns over names and addresses of parents to the Department of Elections, they undermine the privacy of the parents, some of whom are undocumented immigrants. If they do not turn over names and instead manage the election on their own, they take on a new and inappropriate responsibility for a school district. If they simply turn over to the Department of Elections a list of generic addresses of all parents and guardians, they may inadvertently disenfranchise some noncitizen parents who happen to live in the same households as a registered voter since the Department of Elections might crosscheck the household with their registered voting list.

In sum, the measure would certainly enfranchise a large number of parents and guardians in the school district who are not currently allowed to vote for school board candidates. But the measure's lack of specificity raises some questions about how it will be implemented.

The SPUR Board was unable to reach its 60 percent threshold to take a position for or against this measure.

SPUR takes "No position" on Proposition D.