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San Francisco defends right of noncitizens to vote in school board elections

A volunteer campaigning to recall the SF School Board, reminds passerby’s of the upcoming election to real the San Francisco School Board on Feb 14, 2022. The City Attorney’s Office is responding to a lawsuit against by a Republican operative that asserts that San Franciscan non-citizens did not have the right vote in San Francisco Unified School District elections. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

San Francisco is defending the right of non-citizens to vote in school board elections.

In a brief filed Friday, the City Attorney’s Office swung back at a legal challenge by a Republican operative that aims to revoke the right of non-citizens to vote in San Francisco Unified School District elections. 

The motion comes in response to a lawsuit filed three-and-a-half months ago in San Francisco Superior Court by James V. Lacy—an Orange County lawyer, right-wing pundit and author of conservative books such as Taxifornia—alleging that non-citizen voting is unlawful and should be banned.

Fellow plaintiff Michael Denny, a San Francisco resident, said non-citizens participating in local elections unlawfully dilutes the votes of citizens.

In his response Friday, City Attorney David Chiu countered that while California’s constitution guarantees voting rights to citizens over the age of 18, it does not prohibit cities from extending the electorate to additional residents in local elections. 

Even if the court found a conflict between the city’s charter and state law, Chiu argued that San Francisco’s “home rule authority” would prevail.

Chiu noted in his filing that non-citizens were allowed to vote for the first 150 years of United States history.  

“While women and racial minorities who were citizens were deprived of voting rights, non-citizens who were white male property owners could vote in state and local elections well into the 20th century,” he wrote in the brief. “Non-citizen voting in 40 states and U.S. territories was curtailed only after an influx of Southern and Eastern European immigrants and World War I provoked xenophobia and nativism in this country.”

In 2016, San Francisco voters passed Proposition N, allowing non-citizens—including permanent residents, visas holders, refugees and undocumented immigrants—to cast ballots in school board races. Five years later, in 2021, the city made non-citizen voting in school elections a permanent right for parents or guardians with at least one child under 19 years old.

Chinese for Affirmative Action—a group that advocates for multiracial democracy—told The Standard the Lacy lawsuit coincides with a national Republican effort to engage in voter suppression and prevent  immigrant voters from having their voices heard.

The nonprofit advocacy group pointed out that more than 500 bills have been introduced since the 2020 elections to effectively disenfranchise people by, among other things, requiring photo identification and purging voter rolls.

If the litigation against San Francisco’s non-citizen voting law succeeds, Chinese for Affirmative Action says it would discourage some immigrant voters from weighing in on issues that affect their children. 

“By extending the right to vote to non-citizens, San Francisco has led the way in expanding access to democracy and promoting immigrant inclusion,” Chinese for Affirmative Action Immigrant Rights Coordinator Olivia Zheng said. “In the face of attacks on voting rights across the country, it is crucial to continue defending the right for immigrants to fully participate in and shape their communities.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey, 105,000 of San Francisco’s 870,000 residents are non-citizens.

Proponents of non-citizen voting rights say it gives people with roots in their community a chance to have a say in local governance. 

Immigrant parent and San Francisco resident Hwaji Shin said it brought her to tears when she voted for the first time in the U.S. in 2018.

“For the first time in my life, I felt like I was a full member of the school community whose voice matters,” Shin said in the Chinese for Affirmative Action statement.

Shin and other parents who work with Chinese for Affirmative Action say they intend to re-register to vote and remain actively involved in their school district

Yanling Deng, an SFUSD parent of a 2 ½-year-old daughter, said it’s particularly important for her family because she feels the district hasn’t always listened enough to low-income families with limited English proficiency.

“I voted in the school board recall election because I wanted to advocate for immigrant children and families,” Deng said, “especially Asian immigrant parents.”

The city attorney, in his court filing, said just about a third of San Francisco public school students have a parent who is a disenfranchised immigrant. The right of non-citizens to vote, he added, “enhances the education of all students, not just the children of immigrants.” 

In a phone call with The Standard, Lacy batted away Chiu’s rebuttal, saying a judge a few-thousand miles east overturned a similar law allowing non-citizens to vote in local races in New York.

“The California constitution clearly establishes that a qualification for voting in any elections, including school board elections,” Lacy said, “is that the person be a citizen of the U.S.”

Given the outcome of the New York lawsuit, he added, officials in San Francisco should take heed.