Noncitizens likely to get right to vote in San Francisco school board recall

Supervisors set to approve measure that would open ballot to parents, guardians of minors in SF

The Board of Supervisors is poised to approve legislation on Tuesday that expressly allows certain noncitizens to vote in recall elections for school board members.

The legislation, co-authored by supervisors Connie Chan and Myrna Melgar, permanently extends the right to vote in school board elections to a select group: parents, guardians and caretakers of San Francisco children under 19 years old.

Eligible noncitizens must also reside in San Francisco, be of legal voting age, and not be in prison or on parole for a felony conviction.

“Being able to cast my ballot for the San Francisco Board of Education means that my existence is seen, my voice is heard, and our family’s life matters to our community,” said Hwaji Shin, parent of a public school student, in a September statement.

Proposition N, which voters passed in 2016, granted the right to noncitizens to vote in school board elections through 2022; however, recall elections were not specified. The Department of Elections indicated in April noncitizens could not sign petitions to recall school board members or vote until the next regularly scheduled school board election in November.

The legislation, co-sponsored by eight supervisors, is up for a vote at Tuesday’s regular Board of Supervisors meeting. Elections staff already posted notices informing voters that eligible noncitizens may participate in the Feb. 15 recall.

In general, opponents of the recall have supported noncitizen voting. The recall is directed at San Francisco Unified School District Board President Gabriela López, Vice President Faauuga Moliga and member Alison Collins. Moliga and López welcomed the news when reached on Thursday afternoon. Collins and recall organizers were not reached in time for publication.

“Although many families are concerned about this recall election’s waste of funding, time and energy, I am glad to see the Dept. of Elections is honoring non-citizen parents’ ability to continue to exercise their right to vote,” López said in a text.

Prop. N has not yet resulted in high participation. In the November 2018 election, 65 noncitizens registered to vote, followed by just six in November 2019 and 36 in November 2020, according to Department of Elections Director John Arntz. Because eligibility can change, noncitizens must register to vote for each election.

The era of Trump may have been a factor in the low participation. Following the former president’s election, supervisors added a warning that information provided by noncitizens, some of whom might be undocumented, to register may be obtained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and that the naturalization application process includes a question of whether they have ever registered or voted in an election in the country.

“It really was an uphill battle from day one,” said Eric Cuentos, senior director of family engagement at Mission Graduates and member of the Immigrant Parent Voting Collaborative. “San Francisco is able to be a leader in the expansion of voting rights and ability to be part of the decisions that actually impact peoples’ lives. We’re going to double down on the strategies we have before that we know works, which was meeting people where they’re at.”

Although the White House has changed hands, immigration advocates are frustrated federal immigration policy is hardly different. But Cuentos believes the improved political climate will mean more registrations, and the uncommon right is still appreciated.

“What’s been very clear since 2016 is we’ve seen how important it is for our noncitizen residents and families to get involved and have a say,” Chan said. “I know that only if my mom had the support and resources and ability to participate in the election to make decisions on our school system, I think she would’ve been a lot more active and feel empowered to be a voice for the immigrant community.”

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