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San Francisco Appoints First Noncitizen to Serve on Elections Commission

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An Asian woman wearing a black dress raises her right hand in front of a man wearing a black suit who is also raising his and holding a document inside a building.
Aaron Peskin, President of the Board of Supervisors, swears in appointee Kelly Wong to the San Francisco Elections Commission at City Hall in San Francisco on Feb. 14, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The newest member of the San Francisco Elections Commission, a seven-member civilian body that oversees and creates policy for the city’s Department of Elections, isn’t legally allowed to vote.

Kelly Wong, an immigrant rights advocate, is believed to be the first noncitizen appointed to the commission. At a swearing-in ceremony administered by Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin on Wednesday at San Francisco City Hall, dozens of people gathered to commemorate the occasion.

Wong said she hopes her appointment is a beacon of hope for other immigrants living in the city.

“There are always voices inside my head. Like, ‘You can’t do it. You’re not competent. You’re an immigrant. This is not your country.’ That’s not true,” said Wong, who immigrated to the U.S. in 2019 from Hong Kong to pursue graduate studies. “If I can do it, you can do it.”

Wong’s appointment is the result of a 2020 voter-approved measure that removed the citizenship requirement to serve on San Francisco boards, commissions and advisory bodies. Each of the commission’s seven members is appointed by a different city official, such as the mayor, city attorney or district attorney. The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to appoint Wong.

A man wearing glasses and a business suit faces a group of people seated in a court room.
Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin begins the swearing-in ceremony for appointee Kelly Wong to San Francisco’s Elections Commission at City Hall on Feb. 14, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“I’m very impressed by her commitment to enfranchising people who rarely vote, to educating people about the voting process, and to bring in noncitizens and get them the tools they need as they become citizens,” Peskin said.

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Drawing on her lived experience, Wong said she wants to increase engagement among the city’s immigrant and non-English speaking communities. Anyone who has delved into San Francisco’s ballot knows it can be just as confusing for native English speakers to decipher the myriad propositions, their arguments, and the city’s ranked-choice voting system.

“Even though I’m fluent in English, I still encounter challenges in navigating a new system, let alone participating in political conversation and activities,” Wong said in an interview with KQED before Wednesday’s swearing-in ceremony.

One of Wong’s priorities is to ensure that voter materials are translated in a way that people can understand – she pointed out, for example, that there isn’t an equivalent term for the word “reparations” in Cantonese or Mandarin.

“I’ve seen how language and cultural barriers prevent immigrants with limited English proficiency from fully exercising their right to vote,” Wong said. “Is there a way to do voter outreach that is not just about translation but can touch on political education while maintaining neutrality and impartiality in elections?”

Since 2022, Wong has done this kind of work as an immigrant rights advocate at Chinese for Affirmative Action, a civil rights group in San Francisco that focuses on the city’s Chinese community. Since commissioners are unpaid, Wong will continue her work as an advocate, helping people like Christina Ouyang, who immigrated here from China 13 years ago.

“Whenever I experience a language barrier or difficulties around access, I can come to Kelly for help,” Ouyang said in Cantonese. (She spoke to KQED through an interpreter.)

A group of people with some wearing masks, applaud in a room.
A crowd claps after appointee Kelly Wong is sworn in to San Francisco’s Elections Commission at City Hall. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Noncitizens aren’t totally barred from voting in San Francisco. In 2016, after multiple attempts in previous years to pass a similar measure, voters approved Proposition N, which allowed San Francisco noncitizens to vote in school board elections if they had a child who went to school in the district. In 2022, a state Superior Court judge struck down the law in a case brought by the United States Justice Foundation, a conservative nonprofit. The California Court of Appeal ultimately reversed the ruling.

“I think that we have to go beyond, ‘Are we doing the bare minimum to how we can get everyone fully involved?’” said Vincent Pan, co-executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action.

He hopes that Wong’s appointment reasserts the commitment of recent measures to get more San Franciscans civically involved.

“I’m hoping there will be a day where it won’t be as newsworthy that you have someone who’s an immigrant and a noncitizen involved in helping make the city run better, especially in a city where such a large percentage of the community is immigrants,” Pan said.

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