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Non-citizen vote in SF school board elections up for November ballot

Sarah Tan


About 10 families are gathered near San Francisco’s Civic Center on a Tuesday night in September, nervously waiting for a board of education meeting to start. They’re frustrated, because many didn’t have the chance to vote for the elected officials they’ve come to see.

Right now in San Francisco, people without citizenship are not allowed to vote for school board members, even if their kids are enrolled in the district. Proposition N would change that for many parents, and many tonight are holding signs that read “Yes on N.”

Lourdes Dobargnes has four children in the city’s public schools. She says without being able to vote, she can’t advocate for her kids.


“It was the case of a bad teacher,” Dobarganes says in Spanish. “As a parent I felt I should have the right to say something, but my situation didn’t allow me to exercise the right to ask for the district to remove her.”

According to the Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA), more than half of the city’s public school students have at least one immigrant parent.Policy manager Gabriel Medina says the right to vote could also help parents feel more invested in their school district.

“We know from the data that when parents are more civically engaged, their students are more likely to attend school more regularly, they’ll be more likely to enroll in more academically rigorous programs, they’re more likely to graduate,” Medina says.

During the school board meeting, members discussed Prop N, and they unanimously voted to support it.

“We want our immigrant parents to actually be more engaged, to give us the voice,” says the motion’s co-author Sandra Lee Fewer. “These are the students who actually have the most to gain and the most to lose.”

So if the entire school board supports granting the right for immigrant parents to vote for board members, then it seems like a no brainer. Right? Well, apparently not. Similar measures have come up twice before, in 2004 and 2010, and San Francisco voters rejected them both.

“Basically we believe that voting is the right of citizenship,” says Howard Epstein, spokesman for the San Francisco Republican Party. “Prop N does not distinguish between people who came here legally and people who are here illegally.”

He also says it could create a precedent for non-citizens.

“So they’re going to say, ‘If you’re going to vote for school board, why can’t we vote for governor? Why can’t we vote for president?’”

Epstein doesn’t think the right to vote really affects parenting.

“I think parents, if they’re good parents — let’s forget their legality — they’re going to help their kids with school, they’re going to be involved, whether they can vote for the school board or not,” he says.

Over in Chinatown, parents at the neighborhood YMCA are taking a different stance from Epstein and organizing support for Prop N. Un Un Che is a parent leader with Chinese for Affirmative Action. Though she herself is a citizen, she says many immigrants are not, because the naturalization process can be lengthy.

“It takes five years before you can even qualify to naturalize,” Che says in Cantonese. “But their children are already in the school district, they’re already enrolled in school, and this is a very basic right for a parent to have a voice in their children’s educational success.”

Non-citizens have already gotten the right to vote in school board elections in some U.S. cities, including Chicago, Illinois and Cambridge, Massachusetts. And if voters say yes to Prop N, non-citizens will also have that right in San Francisco.

Crosscurrents ElectionsImmigration