School & District Management

Let Noncitizens Vote, Mayoral Hopeful Says

By Mary Ann Zehr — November 26, 2003 2 min read
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A candidate in the San Francisco mayoral runoff election is calling for the city to permit noncitizens to vote in local school board elections. The proposal is unusual but not unprecedented.

Matt Gonzalez, the president of the San Francisco board of supervisors and the Green Party’s mayoral candidate, believes that noncitizens should be able to vote in elections for the school board because they pay taxes, said Ross Mirkarimi, a spokesman for the Gonzalez campaign.

The runoff is scheduled for Dec. 9. Mr. Gonzalez’s opponent is Gavin Newsom, a Democrat who has not taken a position on the voting issue.

Mr. Mirkarimi said three of the seven San Francisco school board members have endorsed the proposal. The other board members have not taken a position, he added. The two largest ethnic groups in San Francisco who would benefit from the policy change would be Chinese and Hispanic residents.

David Ho, a community organizer for the Chinatown Community Development Center in San Francisco, said he personally supports the idea, though his organization hasn’t taken an official position.

Mr. Ho, who is Chinese-American, said that with two San Francisco school board members being Chinese-American, his ethnic community has adequate representation. But giving noncitizens a vote, he said, would help immigrant parents get more involved in their children’s education.

In addition, he said, such a system is one way to help immigrants to become acculturated “to a new democracy.”

Precedents Elsewhere

If Mr. Gonzalez, who is Mexican-American, is elected mayor and can persuade San Francisco voters to approve his proposal, the city would join some other U.S. communities in which noncitizens can vote for local officials.

Seven municipalities in Massachusetts and Maryland let noncitizens vote for local officials, according to Ron Hayduk, a professor of political science at Manhattan Community College in New York City, who has studied the issue.

In 1926, he said, Arkansas became the last state to change its policies so that noncitizens could no longer vote. In the late 1960s, New York City began to permit noncitizens to vote for members of community school boards if the voters had children attending city schools.

The 32 local boards were abolished by state law last year. A plan to ensure community input in lieu of the boards is being developed.(“Pact Preserves N.Y.C.'s 32 Subdistrict Offices,” June 18, 2003.)

Chicago ushered in a similar policy to permit noncitizens to vote for local school councils after they were set up in 1988, said a spokesman for the Chicago schools.

When asked why more politicians don’t advocate such a proposal, Mr. Hayduk said he thinks it’s because many don’t realize that the U.S. Constitution doesn’t preclude such a step, and that it’s up to states and municipalities to decide whether to permit it.

He added that some politicians might feel threatened by noncitizen voters, and worry “that a representative of new immigrants might take their place.”

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