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Politics & Policy

Noncitizen parents can vote in San Francisco school board elections again

Amos Lim, right, a noncitizen from Singapore, will again be able to vote in San Francisco's school board elections after the latest court ruling. | Source: Juliana Yamada for The Standard

A court ruling has restored the right of noncitizen San Francisco parents to vote in local school board elections, giving them a say in their children’s education and reopening the door to a key democratic right previously only granted to U.S. citizens.

In 2018, San Francisco began to allow noncitizen parents or guardians with at least one minor child living in the city to vote in the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education elections.

However, after a few elections with a relatively small number of noncitizen participants, legal challenges ensued. A San Francisco Superior Court judge ruled the practice unconstitutional in 2022. The city appealed the ruling immediately.

A year later, the First District Court of Appeal sided with the city.

“Neither the plain language of the Constitution nor its history prohibits legislation expanding the electorate to noncitizens,” Justice Mark Simons wrote in the decision. “The relevant constitutional provisions authorizing home rule permit charter cities to implement such an expansion in local school board elections.”

Thrilled To Vote Again

Many noncitizen parents who voted in local school board elections before are excited about the news.

Amos Lim poses for a portrait in his home in San Francisco on Sept. 10, 2022. | Source: Juliana Yamada for The Standard

Amos Lim, a gay father originally from Singapore, said he’s relieved to see this latest ruling, especially since the new school year is starting soon. His child is about to begin the 10th grade.

“I hope this ruling will encourage more immigrant parents to vote,” Lim told The Standard. “Having a voice at the ballot box to decide the educational goals for my daughter is very important to me.”

The next school board election is scheduled for November 2024.

“We are public school parents,” said Angela Zhou, an immigrant from China and an activist during the 2022 school board recall. “Even though we are not U.S. citizens, we should not be silenced.”

Angela Zhou, an immigrant from China and a member of the Chinese Parent Advisory Council, poses for a portrait in San Francisco Chinatown on July 25, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

As Zhou’s son will attend 12th grade at Galileo High School this coming school year, he will have graduated before the November 2024 school board election, meaning his parents will not be eligible to vote But Zhou’s still excited because many other Chinese American parents can weigh in.

Another well-known noncitizen parent is Siva Raj, an Indian immigrant who founded the school board recall campaign in 2022. He also voted for the first time last year after moving to the U.S. for more than a decade. Raj told The Standard that he's glad to see the new ruling and "totally will vote again" next year.

China, Singapore and India do not recognize dual citizenship, which prompts many immigrants to remain green card holders in the U.S. instead of acquiring U.S. citizenship. Except for permanent residents, other noncitizens include visa holders, refugees and undocumented immigrants.

James Lacy, an attorney and conservative author from Orange County, is the leader behind the lawsuit that aims to overturn noncitizen voting.

In a statement to The Standard, he said the latest ruling denigrates the integrity of elections by devaluing citizenship as the key qualification for voting. He made an example saying foreign diplomats, like Chinese consulate staff members living in San Francisco, could be qualified to vote in local school board elections based on the ruling.

The battle doesn’t end here, he suggested.

“I will continue to litigate against noncitizen voting in California,” Lacy said. “The path may not be an appeal to the California Supreme Court, but rather a federal court case.”