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Slow start for non-citizen voter registration

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With the passage of Proposition N, all San Franciscans, regardless of citizenship status, can vote on the San Francisco Unified School District’s school board through 2022. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Just one non-citizen voter so far has registered to participate in the November school board elections since a 2016 ballot measure allowing undocumented community members to cast votes in that race was officially implemented last month.

With the passage of Proposition N in 2016 following two prior attempts, San Francisco expanded the right to vote on the San Francisco Unified School District’s leadership to non-citizen parents, guardians and caretakers of youth under 19 who are currently living in San Francisco through 2022.

But the measure’s passage coincided with the election of President Donald Trump, and tensions over controversial federal immigration policies have heightened dramatically over the last two years. Despite ongoing outreach by community advocates and immigrant rights groups, there has been just one taker since The City’s Department of Elections first issued non-citizen registration forms in mid-July.

On the department’s website, potential undocumented voters are explicitly warned that enfranchisement comes with potential consequences: Any information provided to the Department of Elections, including the prospective voters’ names and addresses, may be obtained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as well as “other agencies, organizations and individuals.”

“We have been told by The City that there is a potential that anyone who shares their information by virtue of registering, that this information can be potentially obtained by ICE and other government agencies. That for some people is a real risk,” said Norma Garcia, Director of Policy and Advocacy for the Mission Economic Development Agency. “With the horrors of the family separation [“zero-tolerance” immigration policy], I think people’s fears are legitimate.”

MEDA held a first information session Saturday, and is currently working to establish a confidential hotline to help field questions by potential non-citizen voters.

While the SFUSD does not gather information on the immigration status of its students or their families, upwards of 40,000 undocumented individuals are currently estimated to be living in San Francisco.

Organizations that have been working to educate communities on the benefits of non-citizen voting ahead of the measure’s passage are now also emphasizing the potential risks in ongoing outreach and are advising potential voters to consult with immigration attorneys.

“There has been a question about whether people feel safe enough to participate,” said Lariza Dugan-Cuadra, executive director of the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN). “The jury is still out on whether are we as a city [providing] the protections that we need and are putting in place the fire walls that are necessary to ensure that our community‘s information is protected.”

Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer, who as a former school board member advocated for the measure, said that she has also worked to secure some $375,000 in funding so far to help “educate non-citizen parents on the right but also the risk, of voting.”

“We are very cautious. We know that the president has mentioned voter fraud many times, in particular amongst people who don’t have the right to vote,” said Fewer, but added that she believes that the measure is an important step in empowering immigrant families in the years to come.

“There are parents who come to this country because of education,” said Fewer. “I think that San Franciscans, when they voted for this agreed that these parents should have the right to vote on who would be governing their children’s education.”

According to Department of Elections Director John Arntz, safety and privacy concerns were an “issue from the beginning.”

“A lot of people in the community felt that the department should destroy records and not do the normal processes for getting people registered,” said Arntz. “ But there is nothing in the law that dictates the department to do anything differently — all that happened was there was a change in the definition of a voter in San Francisco for the school board elections.”

Under the state’s election code, voter information is confidential. However, there are exceptions for members of the media, campaigns and candidates, “people doing scholarly research” and non-government agencies who may gain access to the department’s master voter file, according to Arntz.

“Those same exceptions apply to non-citizen voter information,” he said.

While there is still some time to sign up — registration closes in October — predicting whether or not there will be a significant surge in the number of non-citizens choosing to exercise their new-found right is difficult, largely because there are no data points for comparison, said Arntz.

“We have one [registered non-citizen voter] at this point — that is the history of non-citizen registration in San Francisco,” said Arntz, adding that the department has been engaged in education and outreach efforts and will soon send out a citywide mailer.


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