National News

Noncitizens in San Francisco can register to vote, but only for school board elections

Noncitizens in San Francisco, including undocumented immigrants, will be able to vote in November -- but only in local school board elections.

Posted Updated

Madison Park (CNN)
(CNN) — Noncitizens in San Francisco, including undocumented immigrants, will be able to vote in November -- but only in local school board elections.

San Franciscans in 2016 approved Proposition N, 54% to 46%, extending the right to vote to noncitizens. This week, the city's Department of Elections began issuing voter registration forms so qualifying noncitizens can cast their ballots in the school board elections on November 6.

City residents who are of legal voting age, not in prison or on parole for a felony conviction, and are parents, legal guardians, or legally recognized caregivers of children under the age of 19 living in San Francisco, can register to vote in school board elections -- regardless of legal immigration status.

The term "noncitizens" encompasses a broad group, including permanent residents, visa holders, people granted asylum or under programs like Temporary Protected Status, among others.

Supporters in San Francisco celebrated the occasion Monday at City Hall, citing statistics that one out of three in the city's public schools came from immigrant families.

"For so long, these people have been marginalized and other people who are citizens who have the legal right to vote have dominated the conversation," San Francisco Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer told CNN affiliate KRON. "Quite frankly, I think it's time. ... I think those are the voices that need to be heard. Because quite frankly, those are the children in our system that actually need more help."

But the news also came with a note of caution.

A notice on top of the noncitizen voter registration form advises that their names and addresses "may be obtained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and other agencies, organizations, and individuals." It also notes that if they ever apply for citizenship, that they will be asked if they've ever registered or voted in an election in the United States, and suggests consulting with an immigration lawyer or organization before providing their personal information.

Where can noncitizens vote?

San Francisco isn't the only city that has granted noncitizens the right to vote.

"It's certainly not widespread, but it's certainly not unprecedented," said Joshua A. Douglas, law professor at the University of Kentucky College of Law.

Several Maryland cities, including Hyattsville, Mount Rainier and Takoma Park have extended the vote to noncitizens. Takoma Park changed its law in 1992 to allow participation in the city's mayoral and council elections, regardless of immigration status.

New York City had allowed noncitizens to vote in local school board elections from 1968 to 2003, until it did away with elected school boards.

Last week, the Boston City Council held a public hearing on allowing noncitizens with legal residency to vote in city elections. The issue is also being discussed in Portland, Maine and Montpelier, Vermont.

"There's a renewed push in some places. No doubt, I would assume, informed by the current political climate," Douglas said.

"In states that allow localities to dictate their own voting rules, people are deciding to expand the electorate as a matter of local democracy. There's also an argument that enfranchising noncitizens in local elections will spur them to seek their full citizenship so they can vote in all elections," he added.

More places have extended voting for noncitizens with legal status.

"Quite frankly, it's unlikely that lots of undocumented immigrants would show up to vote for fear of getting caught -- that's speculation," Douglas said.

Granting noncitizens the vote in local elections has its share of opponents.

Harmeet Dhillon, the Republican National Committeewoman from California, told CNN affiliate KGO that she voted against the San Francisco measure two years ago.

"I don't think that people who have otherwise tenuous ties to San Francisco, given their lack of legal residence, should be making long-term decisions about that structure and process," she told the station.

An idea old as America

Noncitizens had voted in American elections for more than 150 years, from around the time of the American Revolution up until after World War I.

By the 19th century, noncitizens in at least 22 US states or territories were voting in local, state and federal elections, according to research from Jamie Raskin, who has taught constitutional law at American University's Washington College of Law for more than two decades. Raskin, a Democrat, is also a US congressman, representing Maryland's 8th congressional district.

A flood of immigrants to America at the start of the 20th century fueled a rise of anti-immigrant sentiment. By 1926, all states had abolished the practice.

Noncitizens have been barred by law from voting in federal elections since 1996.

Copyright 2023 by Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.