Proposition N: Enabling Non-Citizen Parents to Vote in School Board Elections

This Charter amendment would allow non-citizen parents, legal guardians and caregivers of children 18 years old or younger who reside in San Francisco to vote for school board candidates. These new voters, who would register with the city’s Department of Elections, would need to be at least 18 years old and not be otherwise disqualified from voting under the California Constitution or state statute.

The Board of Supervisors voted 10-1 to put this initiative on the ballot. Voting for: John Avalos, President London Breed, David Campos, Malia Cohen, Jane Kim, Eric Mar, Aaron Peskin, Katy Tang, Scott Wiener and Norman Yee. Voting against: Mark Farrell.

A separate ballot measure — Proposition F — would, if passed, lower the voting age to 16 for San Francisco municipal and school elections. But those new voters would have to be U.S. citizens.

Why is this on the ballot?

Similar initiatives failed twice before, narrowly in 2004 and by a wider margin in 2010.

Then-Supervisor David Chiu, who sponsored the 2010 measure, blamed its failure on the lack of information among confused voters who thought it violated the state Constitution. National “anti-immigration sentiment” at the time hurt its popularity as well, Chiu said.

Campos has said the 2010 measure probably failed because it got “lost” on a ballot packed with 15 local propositions. This year’s ballot is even more crowded, with 25 local and 17 state measures competing for voters’ attention.  

This year’s “anti-Trump” political climate could raise awareness of this measure, according to outgoing District 1 Supervisor Eric Mar, who proposed Proposition N.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and suggested policies, such as building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and deporting an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, are expected to increase turnout among Latino voters. Mar believes higher Latino participation will prove decisive in November nationally and locally.

The children of non-U.S. citizens make up a considerable portion of the San Francisco Unified School District’s student population.

The district, in partnership with other local organizations, has estimated that there are about 23,000 non-citizen parents in San Francisco. According to a 2013 study by the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute, 10,000 of those parents could be undocumented immigrants. The school district does not track the citizenship of students or parents.

The measure’s advocates say this population lacks representation on the district’s Board of Education, whose responsibilities include approving curriculum changes, appointing superintendents and allocating its nearly $800 million budget.

Proponents argue that the proposition would improve student performance, and that parents who may vote are also likely to get more involved with their children’s education — by increasing their attendance, raising grades and making college a more likely next step.

The official opponent of “this misguided ballot measure” argues that this would give “non-citizens and illegal aliens” a right that Americans do not have: voting in another nation’s elections.

According to the district’s 2015-2016 annual report, 27 percent of the student body identifies as Latino. The California Department of Education reports that nearly half of the district’s 16,051 English learners speak Spanish at home.

None of the board’s members is Latino or a native Spanish speaker, said board member Sandra Fewer, who is running to succeed Mar.

This might be because non-citizens are not allowed to vote in these elections, Fewer said.

What would it do and at what cost?

If Proposition N passes, San Francisco would become the first California city and the eighth U.S. city to legalize non-citizen voting. (The others are Chicago and six cities in Maryland.) The change would allow eligible non-citizen parents — including legal permanent residents and undocumented immigrants — to vote only for school board candidates.

Like U.S. citizens in California, non-citizens could not vote while in prison or on parole for felony convictions.

The city Department of Elections estimated it would cost at least $160,000 to implement Proposition N for each school board election, according to a report by the controller’s office. It would cost approximately $88,000 to pay staff and poll workers. The remaining $72,000 would pay for supplies, postage, translating, printing and distributing voting materials. If non-citizens were allowed to vote only by mail-in ballot, the cost could drop to $110,000.

Is there a catch?

Though this Charter amendment would allow non-citizen parents to vote, getting them to vote could be another challenge.

It would require new ballots and outreach materials, all translated for immigrant parents in their native tongue, from Spanish to Farsi. If passed, this could fuel demand for school board meetings to be translated into other languages as well. Currently, only Board of Supervisor meetings are translated thus, into Spanish and Cantonese.

But persuading immigrant parents to vote appears to be less of a concern.

More citizens who do not consider English their primary language are already casting ballots at San Francisco’s polls. Although the Department of Elections does not collect data on the race or ethnicity of registered voters, it does keep track of their preferred language. While English remains the dominant choice among San Francisco voters, those who prefer Spanish or Chinese (both Cantonese and Mandarin) have grown steadily in number since 2013.

But voter turnout among undocumented parents could be dismal if the fear of being exposed and deported for registering to vote is not addressed. School board member Fewer said San Francisco’s so-called sanctuary laws prevent city employees from helping immigration officials investigate or prosecute undocumented residents.

At the July 27 Board of Supervisors meeting, legislators who supported the law said more parent involvement would boost student performance. Though political engagement is better than no engagement at all, studies have shown that actions directly related to learning, such as reading out loud or homework help, are better at improving student outcome compared with petitioning or voting.

Furthermore, opponents claim this could sway the city’s education policy toward progressive Democrats, though the school board defines itself as a non-partisan body. Studies show immigrants are more likely to have left-leaning political views, especially voters of Latino descent.

Farrell, in his lone dissent at the July 27 meeting, described the proposition as a “slippery slope” for non-citizen voting.

“If school boards, why not supervisors? Or anything else in this country?” he said “I think it’s part of a broader discussion, and I’m not ready to support this.”

Though the U.S. Constitution does not explicitly prohibit undocumented immigrants from voting, Proposition N could violate state laws and face a court challenge, some legal experts believe. The California Constitution explicitly gives voting rights to citizens only, though the law could be interpreted as barring only non-citizens from statewide elections, giving cities like San Francisco more leeway in local races.

Who officially proposed it?

Supervisors Eric Mar, David Campos, Malia Cohen, Scott Wiener and Jane Kim.

Who officially opposes it?

San Francisco Republican Party, San Francisco Moderates and the San Francisco Chronicle.

Vote threshold to pass

Simple majority — 50 percent plus one

Effective date if passed

Jan. 1, 2017, though no school board seats will be up for grabs until November 2018. It would sunset on Dec. 31, 2022, or the Dec. 31 immediately following the third school board election, whichever is later. The Board of Supervisors could reauthorize the measure after it expires.

Follow the money

One committee is spending money in support of Proposition N: “Coalition for Immigrant Parent Empowerment, Yes on N, 2016.”

Follow the money at the San Francisco Ethics Commission: all Proposition N filings.

Endorsements: our methodology

The Public Press chose to count endorsements from organizations that backed multiple candidates or ballot measures, and that made those endorsements available online. We did not count endorsements from individuals.

If you think we missed an important organization, please tell us. We’d love to hear from you.

Tracked endorsements by organization


Written by: Hye-Jin Kim

Published: Sept. 30, 2016