San Francisco’s efforts to encourage non-citizen parents to vote in school board elections have fizzled.
By the deadline for registering this week, only 49 had signed up, according to the city’s Department of Elections.
The low registration rate means many parents in the city will be unable to weigh in about who should make decisions about their children’s schools and that the school district will have to rely on other ways to engage immigrant parents.
Two years ago, San Francisco voters approved a measure on its city and county ballot granting non-citizens with children the right to vote for school board candidates, thus joining a handful of communities across the nation who have approved similar measures. San Francisco is the only community in California to allow non-citizens to vote.
As a result, immigrant parents, regardless of their immigration status, were allowed to register to vote for school board candidates for the first time this year, but warnings posted by the city about possible Immigration and Customs Enforcement repercussions and obstacles for naturalization may have deterred most non-citizen parents from signing up.
Those newly eligible to register to vote in the school board elections are immigrant parents or guardians who are legal permanent residents — those with green cards, those on temporary visas, like students or H-1B visa holders working in high tech and other fields and those in the United States without authorization. To be able to vote, they had to live in San Francisco and be the parents, guardians, or caregivers of children living in the city.
All school districts are barred by federal law from tracking the citizenship status of parents, but one indication of the high number of immigrant parents in San Francisco is that more than half of its 57,000 students speak a language other than English at home. It is not clear, however, how many of these students’ parents are U.S. citizens and therefore already had the right to vote.
The city’s decision to allow non-citizens — especially undocumented immigrants — to vote has provoked the ire of groups opposing illegal immigration. Last month, many Democrats joined Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives to overwhelmingly approve a resolution, with a 279-62 vote, specifically condemning San Francisco’s law. The resolution stated that “allowing illegal immigrants the right to vote devalues the franchise and diminishes the voting power of United States citizens.”
One of the reasons many parents may have decided not to register to vote is that after the Trump administration began targeting more immigrants without criminal histories for deportation, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors decided to post a warning on voting materials about the potential consequences of registering.
That included what surely would be an alarming message for many non-citizens seeking to stay in the United States or apply for citizenship.
“Any information you provide to the Department of Elections, including your name and address, may be obtained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and other agencies, organizations and individuals,” the warning read. “In addition, if you apply for naturalization, you will be asked whether you have ever registered or voted in a federal, state, or local election in the United States.”
It is illegal for anyone who is not a U.S. citizen to vote in federal elections. Though it is legal for them to vote in San Francisco’s school board elections, if they do so, they may still have to answer “yes” to the question on the citizenship application.
“It does not surprise me that there is such a low number of people who have registered. This president has done everything he can to scare and frighten our immigrant community,” said San Francisco Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer, who previously served on the city’s school board.
Fewer said she supports allowing non-citizens to vote because it is important for school board members to give equal weight to immigrant parents’ perspectives.
“I’m a firm believer that it is a basic foundation of our democracy that we include as many voices as possible, especially in a school district where we have a large racial achievement gap,” Fewer said. “For immigrant parents, [to make sure] their children will be given the same opportunities as English-speaking children and get the services that they need, for them to be able to vote and have a voice in the public education system, it is really important. As citizens we take it for granted.”
The concept of allowing immigrant parents who have not yet naturalized to vote in school board elections is not new. Chicago allows non-citizen parents to vote in local school council elections and New York allowed them to vote in school board elections from 1968 to 2003, when the city began appointing instead of electing school board members. Several cities in Maryland allow non-citizens to vote in mayoral and council elections and other cities, including Boston, are considering allowing them to do so.