Some Cities Want Their Noncitizen Immigrants to Vote

San Francisco considers opening up local elections to newcomers.

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A pedestrian walks toward a polling place sign during the presidential primary election in San Francisco on June 7, 2016.

Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

“Look at illegal immigrants voting all over the country,” Donald Trump recently claimed in a Fox News interview, part of his ongoing effort to cast doubt on the integrity of the presidential election. There’s no evidence to support the Republican nominee’s claims of election fraud, but some cities are moving to expand voting rights to include noncitizens.

The latest is San Francisco, where the Nov. 8 ballot will include a measure allowing the parents or legal guardians of any student in the city’s public schools to vote in school board elections. The right would be extended to those with green cards, visas, or no documentation at all. “One out of three kids in the San Francisco unified school system has a parent who is an immigrant, who is disenfranchised and doesn’t have a voice,” says San Francisco Assemblyman David Chiu, the son of Taiwanese immigrants. “We’ve had legal immigrants who’ve had children go through the entire K-12 system without having a say.” Undocumented immigrants should also have the right, Chiu adds, to bypass the “broken immigration system in this country.”

Noncitizen voting isn’t as radical as it might sound. For more than half of U.S. history, from 1776 until the 1920s, noncitizens were widely permitted to participate in elections. “We had 40 states that used to allow it,” says Ron Hayduk, an associate professor of political science at San Francisco State University. “Immigrants could vote, not just in local elections,” he says. “They could even run for office—and did win office.” The hope, Hayduk says, was that immigrants would feel more invested in civic life if they were able to participate in American democracy.

That tradition was washed away by the wave of widespread anti-immigrant sentiment that followed World War I. In 1921 and 1924, Congress passed laws severely restricting immigration numbers, cutting arrivals from about 1 million newcomers per year to about 150,000. It was also a time when the nature of American elections was changing. Women were granted the vote in 1920, vastly expanding the franchise, and third-party populist and labor movements were challenging both the Republican and Democratic parties. “Immigrant voting was a kind of casualty of not only anti-immigrant backlash but partisan fights over what election rules should be,” Hayduk says. In 1926, Arkansas was the last state to end noncitizen voting. Decades later, in 1996, Congress passed legislation making it a crime for noncitizens to vote in federal elections.

Today there are six jurisdictions in Maryland that let noncitizens vote in local elections. Chicago allows them to take part in elected parent advisory councils but not to vote in school board elections. Four towns in Massachusetts have moved to allow noncitizen voting and are awaiting state approval. And in New York City, where noncitizens make up 21 percent of the voting-age population, the city council is drafting legislation that would allow more than 1.3 million legal residents to take part in municipal elections. The city previously allowed noncitizens to vote in school board elections, but that ended when New York’s school boards were dissolved in 2002.

San Francisco has tried in the past to grant noncitizens access to school board elections. A 2004 measure narrowly failed, with 51 percent voting against it. “There was an opposition campaign at that time,” Chiu says. He sponsored another ballot measure in 2010, which also failed. This time, Chiu says, he’s hoping for a victory. So far he’s seen no organized opposition: “I think that’s because of the ugly, anti-immigrant statements expressed by Donald Trump and his supporters.”

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