Amos Lim is ready to vote.
He successfully registered himself in San Francisco as a noncitizen voter for the November election in early September. This will mark his fourth time voting in a city that has allowed noncitizen parents to vote in local school board races for the last four years.
“I have a voice at the ballot box,” said Lim, a gay dad from Singapore with an adopted daughter currently in a San Francisco public high school. “That’s important for me.”
In 2016, San Francisco voters passed a charter amendment to allow noncitizen parents or guardians with at least one minor child to vote in the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education elections.
The law opened the door for many green card holders, visa recipients, refugees and undocumented immigrants to choose local school leaders.
But the path to making noncitizen voting a reality wasn’t a smooth one—it was won after a decade-long battle. And a fresh legal challenge saw a San Francisco judge deem the practice unconstitutional.
The city appealed the ruling and the court has allowed noncitizens the right to participate in the coming election. But depending on the outcome of the case, it may be the last time they can.
San Francisco politicians have long supported noncitizen voting rights, but the citizen voters were not always on board with the political establishment.
In 2004 and 2010, voters rejected the idea of allowing noncitizens to vote in local school board elections. But it was passed the third time it was on the ballot—in 2016.
After 2016, noncitizen voting made its debut in 2018 for a regular school board election. In the following years, three more school board elections were held, but relatively a small number of noncitizen immigrants participated.
Lim has now voted three times, except for the 2019 special election.
“I heard about this on the news [in 2018],” he said. “And then I registered.”
The high-profile school board recall this February has attracted a record-breaking 235 noncitizen voters. Lim told The Standard that he didn’t support the recall, while many Asian American parents were actively campaigning to remove the three controversial school board members.
“I don't think that the school board members were able to address every concern,” Lim said. “I feel that they did as much as they could.”
David Chiu has changed his title frequently in San Francisco’s politics. But his firm support for noncitizen voting rights has never wavered.
In 2004, as a community activist, he led the noncitizen voting rights campaign to pass the ballot measure, which lost by about 3%. In 2010, as an elected supervisor, he was the lead author of the charter amendment to allow noncitizens to vote. In 2022, when a judge ruled that noncitizen voting is unconstitutional, he advocated as City Attorney on behalf of the city to appeal that.
“Family should have a say,” Chiu told The Standard. “More parents to weigh in can lift up the quality of education.”
As a father of a school-age child now, Chiu’s passion to fight for noncitizen parents grows even stronger, as he emphasized the importance of a parent being engaged in their kids’ education.
“We all want to see our kids have better education,” Chiu said. “It’s what we [parents] all care about and what we always talk about.”
The legality of noncitizen voting rights was challenged earlier this year by an attorney and conservative author from Orange County, James Lacy. San Francisco Superior Court Judge Richard Ulmer initially sided with him.
However, Chiu’s Office filed an appeal, which was granted and allowed the city to conduct another school board election with noncitizen voting as the case is pending.
“Illegal noncitizen votes will be counted in the upcoming school board election,” Lacy said in a statement. “And with that these votes will unconstitutionally dilute the voting power of all citizen voters.”
One of Lacy’s strongest arguments is that the California Constitution states: “A United States citizen 18 years of age and resident in this state may vote.”
Chiu disputes this. He believes the word “may” in the constitution protects the citizens' right to vote but does not stop the noncitizen’s right to vote. But Judge Ulmer criticized the explanation is “unavailing” in his ruling.
Another concern about noncitizen voting is whether this practice be applied to other elections. In 2016, then-Supervisor Mark Farrell, who later briefly served as mayor, was the lone vote against putting a noncitizen voting charter amendment on the ballot.
“I do want to warn you about the slippery slope,” Farrell said in the meeting before voting. “[If noncitizens can vote in] a school board, why not a supervisor, why not anything else in this country?”
Chiu insisted that the argument for noncitizen parents to vote in school board races is “incredibly compelling” as San Francisco has many immigrant parents.
For Lim, the legal battle seemed to be something that he couldn't control.
“I will leave that to the politicians and political pundits,” he said. “For me, it's more personal in that sense. This is a very small percentage of noncitizens in San Francisco that can vote.” Lim said it takes an extraordinary effort to register and vote because they have to repeat the registration process in every election.
For this November’s school board race, six candidates are vying for three seats. Lim said he would focus on the candidates' plan on reaching out to communities of color, helping kids catch up, and welcoming them into the school community.
Siva Raj, the founder of the school board recall campaign, is an Indian immigrant and a noncitizen parent. He told The Standard that starting the campaign and finally voting were also personal to him.
“Throughout most of my life,” he said, “I've tried to stay far away from politics.”
However, shortly after moving to San Francisco, his discontent with previous school board members led him to start the campaign, and later made city history recalling three elected officials from office in a political battle that drew national attention.
“If it hadn't been for this huge push,” he said, “I would not have gotten involved in something like this.”
He was initially hesitant to vote in the recall even though he created it, but after consulting with his lawyer and getting the approval, he voted for the first time after moving to the U.S. for over a decade.
Lim and Raj are both green card holders and clearly know the benefits to become naturalized U.S. citizens—so they can vote. But it remains a struggle for them as Singapore and India do not allow dual citizenship, which means they have to renounce their motherland’s citizenship to become U.S. citizens. China does not allow dual citizenship either.
For now, the two fathers are happy to focus on being allowed to choose their kids’ school leaders.
“I can't vote in the federal, state, or any other elections other than the school board,” said Lim. “And I'm fine with that.”
Han Li can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org