SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- The push for voting rights to be extended to non-citizens of the United States is gaining momentum as immigrants prepare to vote in the upcoming San Francisco Unified school board recall election on Tuesday, February 15.
At a time when 19 states have passed more restrictive voter laws to make it more difficult for U.S. citizens to cast a ballot, there is a push to expand voting rights in local elections to non-citizens in cities, both large and small, across the country.
"Everybody wants the same thing. They want their kids to have a good education and they want them to have a successful life," said Siva Raj.
It's a truism that unites parents and led Raj to start collecting signatures in early 2021.
Raj is one of the two parents who kicked off the recall of three San Francisco Unified School Board members.
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He moved to San Francisco from the East Bay with his two sons Rishaan and Shriyans in late 2020.
He said he was disappointed class instruction was virtual only, and school buildings remained closed at the time, before vaccines were widely available.
"I couldn't sign the petition myself," he laughs. "Which is still controlled by a different law completely."
However, under the law, Raj, an immigrant from India in the U.S. on a work visa, can vote in the upcoming San Francisco Unified school board recall election.
Non-citizens, who are San Francisco residents with a child under 19, have had that right since 2017 thanks to voter-approved Proposition N.
The measure was backed by the Immigrant Parent Voting Collaborative as the group advocated for the 34% percent of San Francisco residents born outside of the U.S.
"It's super important to continue to do this outreach work and educate folks, even beyond the February recall election," said Crystal Van, an outreach manager for the group Chinese for Affirmative Action.
The non-partisan, San Francisco-based civil rights organization has been around since 1969.
Most recently, Chinese for Affirmative Action has helped spread the word through Zoom events and community outreach that non-citizens have a say in the upcoming recall.
The temporary right was made permanent by San Francisco Supervisors in 2021 and expanded to include school board recall elections.
"As a non-citizen, to participate in that process and to be able to make my voice heard, I think that's amazing," said Raj.
According to the San Francisco Department of Elections, 196 non-citizens are registered to vote in the upcoming school board recall.
This number is a significant increase from the first time non-citizens could exercise the right in 2018, when 65 registered to vote and 59 voted.
"San Francisco is once again putting immigrant voting on the map for folks in the United States, reviving what was historically widespread common practice," said Ron Hayduk, Ph.D. professor of political science at San Francisco State University.
Hayduk noted that until World War I, it was common for mostly white, European immigrant men to vote in local, state, and federal elections or even hold elected office without citizenship.
Non-citizens were voting before women gained the right to vote with the 19th Amendment and before Black people gained voter protections with the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Today, there's a growing movement to reconsider who should be able to legally cast a ballot at a time when 19 states have passed more restrictive voting measures.
"The real questions are, 'Who's a legitimate member of the community?' and 'Who's a stakeholder?'" said Hayduk.
Fifteen jurisdictions in the United States have restored immigrant voting, including 11 villages and cities in Maryland, two cities in Vermont, San Francisco, and New York.
Hayduk notes as many as 45 countries allow immigrants to vote at the local, regional and even national level.
New York City became the first major city in the country to extend voting rights to non-U.S. citizens late last year, making an estimated 800,000 voters eligible to vote in local elections in 2023 for the first time.
A similar measure gained traction in San Jose last month.
According to the U.S. Census data, 40% of residents in San Jose, the nation's tenth largest city, were born outside of the country. Many have become naturalized citizens, but a significant number have not.
San Jose District 5 Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco representing east San Jose made the proposal.
"We have to give people an opportunity to voice their opinion and their will, and especially how we're going to manage their money," said Councilmember Carrasco.
The council is now exploring feasibility, and could place the measure on the ballot for voters to decide this fall.
"Many of these workers had to be in person on the frontline taking care of the rest of us so that we could actually shelter in place during the pandemic," Carrasco said.
She also emphasized that these immigrants come from all over the world from Asia to Latin America.
These members of our community also come from all walks of life. Some work in tech in Silicon Valley and others work under sweltering conditions in our farms keeping food in our grocery stores.
The Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters confirms to ABC7 News its systems can support bringing an estimated 200,000 additional voters online which would likely mean making separate ballots so non-citizens don't accidentally vote in a state or federal election - a mistake that could jeopardize citizenship.
"We're treading in very nuanced waters," said Amanda Alvardo-Ford, a licensed immigration attorney and executive director of La Raza Centro Legal.
La Raza Centro Legal is a San Francisco-based legal aid organization helping immigrant and low-income workers.
As a licensed immigration attorney, Alvarado-Ford urges all non-citizens to consult an immigration lawyer before voting.
She explains, "in the immigration law community we're not certain how the federal government is going to treat that question on the N-400 citizenship application which asks every applicant for citizenship. 'Have you ever voted in a local, a state or a federal election at any time?'"
She believes a 'yes' to that question might be used to bar some immigrants from citizenship.
Raj said he's done his homework, consulted his attorney, and now he's ready to vote.
"Someone's going to talk for you. If you don't do it for yourself," he said.
Guidance from the San Francisco Department of Elections for non-citizen voters is as follows:
The ballots are quadrilingual: English, Chinese, Filipino, and Spanish, which removes the need for non-citizens to ask for a card at a polling place with a specific language. The ballot only includes the three recall questions regarding the members of the Board of Education. For those non-citizen voters who were registered before Jan 31, we mailed them the ballot.
At polling places, non-citizen voters are included in the roster of voters. This means non-citizen voters don't need to indicate they are non-citizens, they will just state their name and address as do all other voters, and the poll workers will look for their names in the roster. The roster will indicate that non-citizens are receive an "EDU ballot" which is the ballot card that lists only the contests associated with the Board of Education. This approach also reduces the need for a person to state they need a non-citizen ballot when at a polling place.
For those are not yet registered, they can still register for the Feb 2022 election, but must do so in person either at the City Hall Voting Center or a polling place.