What the Measure Would Do
Proposition N would allow San Francisco residents who are of legal voting age and who are the parents, legal guardians or caregivers for children in the San Francisco Unified School District to vote in elections for the Board of Education, regardless of whether they are U.S. citizens. The measure would provide these voting rights to noncitizens who are in the country legally and illegally, as long as they have children ages 18 or younger.
If passed, Prop. N would go into effect in January 2017 and sunset after five years, in 2022. At that time the Board of Supervisors would have the authority to decide whether noncitizens could continue to vote for members of the Board of Education (rather than relying on a subsequent ballot measure).
The measure would also allow the Board of Supervisors to adopt ordinances necessary to implement the change in voting. Proponents and the city Department of Elections are exploring the possibility of using mail-in ballots to facilitate noncitizen voting for school board elections.
In 2010, SPUR estimated that a similar measure could “result in an increase of 20,000 or more eligible voters in School Board elections.”1 The City Controller’s Office estimates that this measure would cost the Department of Elections between $110,000 and $160,000 to implement.2
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Many states and local jurisdictions around the country allowed noncitizens to vote until the early 1900s. New York City allowed noncitizens to vote in school board elections from 1968 to 2002, when those seats changed from elected to appointed positions.3 The only jurisdictions in the United States that currently allow noncitizens to vote are a few municipalities in Maryland and in Chicago, where noncitizens may vote for local school council, a management body at each public school.4
Prop. N continues an effort in San Francisco to expand voting rights to noncitizens at the municipal level, which includes similar measures considered (and rejected) by voters in 2004 and 2010.5 Advocates for the measure argue that allowing noncitizens to vote in Board of Education elections could increase parental engagement in local schools, which has been shown to have positive benefits for students and school systems.
There is some question about whether or not a measure to legalize noncitizen voting would be in conflict with state law. In 1996, a state judge struck down an attempt by some residents to allow noncitizens to vote in all municipal elections. The judge ruled that the proposal conflicted with the California Constitution, which he interpreted to require U.S. citizenship to vote. Advocates, however, argue that there are other ways to interpret state law that would permit noncitizen voting in school board elections.6
The measure was placed on the ballot by a 10 to 1 vote at the Board of Supervisors. As a charter amendment, it must be on the ballot and requires a simple majority (50 percent plus one vote) to pass.
Residents of the city with children in the school system ought to have a say in who is deciding policy for those schools. Prop. N would enfranchise a considerable number of families to have more of a voice in their children’s education.
Increasing the number of parents who can participate in school board elections could increase parental involvement and investment in San Francisco’s school system, creating benefits for all families and schools.
The measure would give the Board of Supervisors the power to decide whether or not to extend noncitizen voting past the sunset date, rather than requiring a subsequent ballot measure.
The specifics of implementing this measure are complicated. How would noncitizen parents be identified and reached? How would the city track the presence and age of children in immigrant households in order to offer and revoke voting rights to their parents or guardians when they are born, adopted and turn 19, respectively? How would the city address concerns that creating a separate ballot for noncitizens could lead to a voting process that highlights the citizenship status of voters? There are important implementation questions related to this measure that don’t yet have clear answers.
Language in the state constitution and state election code call into question whether San Francisco can legally extend voting rights to noncitizens.
6 The status of noncitizen voting is indeed confusing at the state level. On October 28, 2015, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill into law that automatically registers all holders of a driver’s license as voters for all California ballots, including federal elections. Since January 2015 legislation decreed the right of a driver’s license to noncitizens, there is an apparent loophole for legal suffrage for noncitizens in California.