San Jose voting rights study was ‘one-sided,’ some say
Veronica Avendaño, an organizer with Papeles por Todos, speaks at an August rally to urge the San Jose City Council to expand voting rights to noncitizen residents. Photo by Jana Kadah.

After months of anticipation and advocacy, the San Jose City Council discussed extending voting rights to noncitizens. But the three-hour meeting left more questions as to whether there is even a path forward.

The study session on Aug. 23 attempted to explore the implementation, feasibility and the legality of allowing noncitizen San Jose residents to vote in municipal elections. The proposal would need to go before voters as a ballot measure. If approved, it would give about 100,000 noncitizen residents a right to select new lawmakers and weigh in on different policies in future local elections. Councilmembers Magdalena Carrasco and Sylvia Arenas proposed the idea in January.

More than 100 residents and advocates spoke in favor of the proposal, but there was not much time allocated to studying the issue. Two presenters, San Francisco State political science professor Ron Hayduk, who wrote a book about restoring noncitizen voting, and local high school student Yunery who volunteers with SOMOS Mayfair, were asked to share their research on extending voting rights to noncitizens. Toni Taber, the city clerk, was asked to outline different ways to implement the idea and the logistics, including cost and legality.

Following the presentation, Councilmember Dev Davis spoke out in frustration about the lack of information. She said the presenters were one-sided and city staff did not do enough to explain what noncitizen voting would look like in San Jose.

“I was really, really disappointed and frankly pretty frustrated that the policy options weren’t laid out,” Davis told San José Spotlight. “I wanted to know what options would be there, what the pros and cons might be for each option.”

She expected an analysis on what voting rights would look like for green card holders, residents at various stages of immigration status and the impact on all residents.

“There was no more than a passing mention of the court cases that have happened very recently,” Davis said, noting that was a major misstep.

San Francisco passed a law in 2016 to allow noncitizen parents to vote in school board elections, and Oakland voters have a similar ballot measure coming before them in November. Both cities are facing lawsuits centered around language in the state constitution. San Francisco’s ruling was struck down by a trial court, but paused on Friday by the court of appeals, allowing noncitizens to vote in November. Oakland has yet to be served with the lawsuit.

Taber said she had a section prepared about the legal analysis, but was directed to take it out because the city attorney would provide a confidential version.

“I can’t tell you why it was confidential, but I do wish we would have had that made public,” Taber said. “I think that would have been helpful for the community.”

Carrasco said she too was disappointed. Like Davis, she wanted detailed analysis to clarify next steps. Councilmembers Raul Peralez and Matt Mahan echoed similar concern at the study session.

“I do wish they talked a little bit more about the things we were concerned about, which was cost and the legal ramifications,” Carrasco told San José Spotlight. “But I did really appreciate the historical context.”

The discussion is in limbo until the city can get clarity on its constitutionality.

Carrasco said the legal issues should’ve been front and center because until there is a court ruling that indicates noncitizen voting is legal, there is almost no path forward without the city being sued for trying to enact it. For now, the proposal is on the back burner, she said.

“Hopefully, we’ll discover where the law lays before I leave in December. If not, I’m hoping the new council will take this back up,” Carrasco said. “Until then, our fight is at the federal government to urge them to allow noncitizens to vote.”

Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.

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