SF School Board Recall Drives More Noncitizen Voters to Register

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Ann Hsu speaks during a press conference held by the Chinese/API Voter Outreach Taskforce on the steps of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco on Jan. 14, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Driven by a string of controversies and frustrations surrounding the San Francisco Board of Education, a record number of San Francisco green card holders, visa holders, refugees and undocumented immigrants have taken advantage of a San Francisco law allowing noncitizen parents to vote in the Feb. 15 school board recall election. 

“For someone like me to get involved in something like this, that shows how terrible the situation is,” said Siva Raj, an immigrant from India who is here on a work visa as he awaits permanent residency.

Raj is one of 74 noncitizen residents of San Francisco to have filed to participate in the upcoming recall election.

Siva Raj (left) and Autumn Looijen speak during a press conference held by the Chinese/API Voter Outreach Taskforce on the steps of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco on Jan. 14, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

While that’s still a relatively small number, it’s more than the total of noncitizens who registered for the school board elections in 2018 (65 registered) and 2020 (36 registered), the first two times noncitizens with children in public schools could vote thanks to passage of a 2016 charter amendment, according to the San Francisco Department of Elections.

At the end of 2020, Raj moved to San Francisco with his kids from the East Bay. Soon thereafter, he and another parent launched the school board recall effort, accomplishing something that hadn’t been done since 1983, the last time a recall qualified for the San Francisco ballot. 

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“This is for our children,” said Raj, who will be voting for the first time this year. “We couldn’t just afford to stand back and do nothing.”

Throughout the pandemic the San Francisco Board of Education has been embroiled in several controversies, like an embattled effort to rename public schools, landing them in the national spotlight on multiple occasions and leading local parents to initiate a recall movement to remove three elected school board members: Alison Collins, Gabriela López and Faauuga Moliga.

While some parent groups in San Francisco were mobilized to recall the Board of Education members due to a sense that they did not move fast enough to reopen schools amid the pandemic, Asian parents speaking out against the board have also mentioned the reform of Lowell High School's merit-based admissions process and allegedly racist tweets against the Asian community by board member Collins, especially amid a time of rising anti-Asian bigotry, as reasons to step up.

Friday morning, a grassroots parent group called the Chinese/API Voter Outreach Taskforce held a press conference in front of the Asian Art Museum announcing that they had registered over 228 new Asian American voters, including citizens and noncitizens.

Like others who attended the press conference, parent Ann Hsu said the recall campaign is her foray into civic engagement. “I have never been involved in politics. And part of the reason is because I don't think much of politicians,” said Hsu, whose twin sons attend Galileo Academy of Science and Technology.

David Lu, a Chinese immigrant who became a U.S. citizen late last year, registered to vote with the help of the task force. During a speech at Friday’s rally, he listed his grievances with the board, including the “failures” to reopen schools in a timely manner, the “unpractical” school renaming process, the “flawed” Lowell High School admission reform and the controversial tweets by Collins perceived to be anti-Asian.

“We have to speak up for the Chinese community, or we will be ignored and discriminated against,” said Lu. “So we need to become voters and say no to the school board members.”

Parent volunteer Ann Hsu is determined to help send a message: “The city will hear the voice of the Asian American community that in the past it has not heard very loudly or much at all,” she said. “We are here and we can be engaged and mobilized.”

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The campaign opposing the recall — No On Recalls of School Board Commissioners Lopez, Collins and Moliga — did not respond to requests for comment.

If any of the three members is removed, San Francisco Mayor London Breed will have the power to appoint the replacements. The ballots were mailed on Friday to voters. Early voting starts next Tuesday on January 18 after the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday.

Note: This story is part of a collaboration between KQED and Han Li of The San Francisco Standard to cover the school board recall election. Han Li can be reached at han@sfstandard.com or on Twitter @lihanlihan.