California and National Elections

Immigrant Voting Measure Defeated in San Francisco

Updated 11/2/04 11:55 PM
SAN FRANCISCO - San Francisco voters today narrowly rejected a ballot proposition that would have allowed non-citizens to vote in local school board elections. Proposition F lost by 51 percent to 49 percent, with the close results reflecting a hard-fought campaign that pitted grassroots activists and the Board of Supervisors against the city’s business community.

“Obviously, this was a new issue, and voters were trying to understand the ramifications,” said David Chiu, an immigration lawyer who coordinated the campaign to pass Proposition F. “We were excited that half the city supported us and we’ll certainly be trying again.”

The measure, which would have granted voting rights to parents of the 17,000 public school students who come from immigrant families, sparked debate about the meaning of citizenship and the role of immigrants in local politics.

The San Francisco Democratic Party, the Green Party, the Labor Council, the current School Board and many community organizations supported the measure, which was placed on the ballot by the Board of Supervisors. Proponents said the measure would allow immigrant parents, who often face long waits to become citizens, to participate more fully in their children’s education.

“We pay taxes and support the infrastructure of the schools, our kids are there, but we have no say,” said Berta Hernandez, a Mexican immigrant whose two children attend San Francisco schools.

Opponents countered that permitting immigrants to vote would lower the value of citizenship and lead to costly legal battles for the city. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and SF-SOS, a nonprofit organization funded by some of San Francisco’s largest businesses were against the measure. A $49,000 contribution by Gap owner Donald Fisher allowed the opposition to mount an aggressive direct mail campaign, outspending proponents by a factor of ten to one.

Opponent Roger Gordon, a son of immigrants and director of local nonprofit Urban Solutions, said the measure’s defeat was about more than just the school board.

“How could the electorate be so united around the presidency and still believe that voting and citizenship are of so little import that we would open up government to people that have not navigated the path to citizenship?” Gordon asked.

“Citizenship equals voting in this country,” said Bruce Cuthbertson, a spokesperson for SF-SOS.

The legal controversy stemmed from a phrase in California’s constitution that reads, “A United States citizen 18 years of age and resident in this state may vote.” Opponents had interpreted that to mean that noncitizens are barred from voting.

But Rachel Moran, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Boalt School of Law, said the sentence could also be read as granting voting rights to some residents without excluding others.

“This might be the minimum group that’s eligible to vote and can’t be cut back,” she said. “You wouldn’t be denying them their right to vote by extending it [to non-citizens].”

For the first half of America’s history, noncitizens voted and could hold public office in most states and territories, though women and people of color were excluded. After World War I, amid a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment, the states moved to restrict voting to citizens.

Several U.S. cities and 22 foreign countries currently allow some form of non-citizen voting, according to the World Policy Institute, a liberal think tank.

“This is part of a much bigger movement across the United States in many communities,” said Michele Wucker, a senior fellow at the institute. “We have the largest proportion of foreign-born members of the population in a century. There are a lot of concerns that arise from the presence of a large number of people who can’t vote.”

Immigrants have voted in Chicago school board elections since 1988, while five Maryland cities allow non-citizens to vote in all municipal elections.

Supervisor Matt Gonzalez said he saw the measure as a first step toward allowing immigrants to vote in all city elections. Experts say it’s unclear how much the immigrant community would exercise that right.

“Usually, voting rates [in national elections] are extraordinarily low among first-generation immigrants who become citizens,” said Laura Stoker, a professor at UC Berkeley who studies political participation.

But that general trend may not apply to school board elections, said Stoker. “It’s much easier to get involved at the local level,” she said. “If the same community organizations that are getting them involved around school violence and what their kids are learning are also taking stands on the school board, that could matter.”

Hernandez said voting would help her be a better advocate for her son, Sebastian, who started middle school last year. Trying to talk to administrators at Horace Mann Middle School, the first school he attended, was “like being in the twilight zone,” Hernandez said.

“You enter into a parallel reality, where everyone assumes you’re an idiot because you’re an immigrant and a mother,” she said.

Gordon said parents could be involved without voting.

“Every wave of immigrants has had to find a way to become more involved in this country,” he said. “Now that we’re faced with Latino faces and Asian faces we should not declare the immigrant experience a partial failure and lower the bar to where we think people can pass.”
Updated 11/2/04 11:55 PM