In November 2016, San Francisco voters narrowly passed Proposition N, which allows some non-citizen parents with children to register to vote in local school board elections beginning in November 2018.
When the San Francisco Board of Elections began issuing voter registration forms for non-citizen voters on 16 July 2018, some web sites catered to the anti-immigration sentiments of their audiences by publishing articles on the topic under headlines such as “San Francisco Begins Registering Illegal Aliens to Vote,” implying to readers that the city was planning to throw their polling place doors wide open to allow everyone, regardless of immigration status, to vote in every election. Social media posts on the subject carried similar implications:
It’s true that non-citizens can now register to vote in San Francisco, but only some non-citizens, and only to vote in one specific type of local election. According to city documents, the new law authorizes “San Francisco residents who are not United States citizens but who are the parents, legal guardians, or caregivers of a child residing in San Francisco to vote in elections for the Board of Education.” Registrants must be at least 18 at the time of the next election, reside in the city of San Francisco, and be parents or caregivers with legal custody of children who also live in San Francisco.
The term “non-citizen” is a broad one that encompasses everyone from lawful permanent U.S. residents (i.e., “green card” holders) who have lived in the United States for many years, to undocumented immigrants lacking a legal basis for prolonged residency in the U.S. Non-citizens are barred by federal law from voting in federal elections, but the choice of whether to allow non-citizens to vote at state or local levels is up to individual state and municipal legislatures. Takoma Park, Maryland for example, has allowed non-citizen residents to vote in City Council elections since 1992.
Eugene Lau, communications manager for the San Francisco immigrant advocacy group Chinese for Affirmative Action, told us of the new law that:
[T]he decision to exercise their right to vote in the school board election is an individual one. We are making sure that their decision is informed by the positives and potential downsides. The positives being that they have an opportunity to participate in the civic engagement process and have a voice in their children’s education. The downside being that if they do decide to vote, they will appear on federally available voter rolls which are accessible by ICE. We believe that a civically engaged immigrant population will be better equipped to advocate for their rights and freedoms in a country where Trump’s immigration policies are actively working against them. We believe that immigrant parents should understand all the nuances and aspects involved so they can make these decisions for themselves.
Non-citizen voting affidavits will carry alerts in multiple languages cautioning potential non-citizen voters that information they provide to the San Francisco Department of Elections may be obtained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and advising prospective registrants that they “may wish” to contact an attorney or knowledgeable immigration advocate before registering. San Francisco is a sanctuary city, meaning that city employees are prohibited from assisting federal immigration authorities unless required by law to do so.