Trump Election Complicates Noncitizen Voting in S.F.

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San Francisco City Hall  (jivedanson/Flickr)

Lost amid Donald Trump’s stunning upset in the election in November was the passage of a controversial San Francisco ballot measure. Proposition N will allow noncitizens with children to vote in local school board elections. But now, with immigrant communities worried over the Trump administration cracking down on sanctuary cities, that might be easier said than done.

"It's really unfortunate that the national rhetoric and the Trump administration has become so hostile to immigrants that they fear to participate in this very basic American right," said David Lee, executive director of the Chinese American Voters Education Committee in San Francisco.

Lee's group encourages Chinese-Americans to get involved in politics. Lee supported Proposition N, but now worries that many immigrants will prefer to stay under the radar, even if they’re here legally. He notes that while the city is nearly a third Asian, the school board currently has no Chinese-American members. He thinks encouraging noncitizens to vote could help change that.

"We have a lot to gain as a community because we’re getting a voice that is rarely heard from involved in politics," Lee said.

While Lee sees Proposition N as a shining example of the city’s progressive, forward-thinking policies, not everyone agrees.

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"San Francisco, I’ve called it the utopian petri dish of California," said Harmeet Dhillon, national committeewoman from California for the Republican National Committee. "Bad ideas that survive the chemical process here tend to spread and metastasize throughout California. And I’m afraid that's what’s really going on behind this."

As an attorney, Dhillon handles election law cases. And she thinks the idea of letting noncitizens participate in elections, including people here illegally, is likely to encourage voter fraud.

"I think a lot of people who don't speak English may misunderstand their right to vote more generally," Dhillon said. "You vote in this election and it feels good. Your candidate won and so you might decide to register for a general election as well."

Dhillon and many other Republicans criticize California for not doing a better job of checking voter rolls and cross-referencing them with undocumented immigrants who get benefits, such as a California identification card for driving.

"I'm not saying turn them in," Dhillon says, "but just for the integrity of the ballot."

For the record, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla says there's no evidence to support allegations that the state's voter rolls include many undocumented people who are ineligible to cast ballots.

More than two-thirds of K-12 students in San Francisco's public schools are Latino or Asian-American. Of all students, at least one in three are believed to have a parent who’s an immigrant.

The passage of Proposition N made San Francisco the first city in California to allow noncitizens with school-age children to vote, but only in school board elections. The idea is to give immigrant parents more of a voice in how the city’s public schools are run.

That got a big thumbs-up from Carmen Flores at a recent school board meeting. Flores is from Nicaragua and has two kids in public schools. She's now a naturalized citizen and therefore allowed to vote in all elections. But she thinks noncitizens should also have a voice.

"If you allow the children to attend school, why can't a parent have the right to vote?" Flores said. "It doesn’t make sense not to do it. Schools in San Francisco are not good. You have to fight to get a really good public school. That’s what I did for my child."

But the idea of noncitizens voting does not sit well with parent Nicole Powell.

"That’s why we pay taxes, this is why we vote," Powell said. "These are things that are in place for a reason. So I personally feel like, you should be a citizen."

San Francisco rejected ballot measures to allow noncitizen voting twice before finally passing it in November. San Francisco school board President Shamann Walton acknowledges backers of Proposition N never imagined it would be enacted during a presidency deemed hostile to immigrants. But he says that shouldn't be a long-term concern.

"We thought we would probably have a different leader in the White House," Walton said. "But remember, presidencies don't last forever, thank God. But hopefully this policy does."

The measure will take effect for November elections in 2018, 2020 and 2022, and will expire after that unless the Board of Supervisors adopts an ordinance to continue it.

The man responsible for implementing Proposition N is city elections chief John Arntz. He says his main focus isn’t the politics of this. It’s just making sure it comes off without a hitch.

"Potentially, there’s going to be a lot of attention to this and a lot of activity," Arntz said. "Just stay to the goal and get it implemented and run the election, and everything else will pass by."

Once it’s up and running, San Francisco will join several small towns in Maryland that also allow noncitizens to cast ballots in school board elections.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the San Francisco School Board currently has no Asian-American members. KQED regrets the error.