UPDATE: San Jose officials question legality of letting noncitizens vote
More than 40 residents and advocates rally at San Jose City Hall on Aug. 23, 2022 to urge officials to expand voting rights to noncitizen residents. Photo by Jana Kadah.

San Jose is exploring extending the right to vote for noncitizen residents, but it may not be constitutional in California.

At a San Jose City Council study session Tuesday, more than 100 residents spoke in favor of extending the right to vote in local elections to all residents, regardless of immigration status. The proposal, introduced by Councilmembers Magdalena Carrasco and Sylvia Arenas earlier this year, would give about 100,000 noncitizen residents in San Jose a right to select new lawmakers and weigh in on different policies in future local elections.

While some councilmembers support extending voting rights to noncitizens, others said it may go against the state constitution—highlighting two related lawsuits in other Bay Area cities.

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.

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Both cities are facing lawsuits centered around language in the state constitution. San Francisco’s rule was struck down by a trial court and is expected to be appealed. Oakland has yet to be served with the lawsuit.

Mayor Sam Liccardo, as well as Councilmembers Matt Mahan and Dev Davis, said San Jose could be vulnerable to lawsuits, and that local efforts appear fruitless unless a legal pathway is determined.

“There needs to be a vote by the voters of the state of California to change the constitution or we’re just spinning our wheels here,” Liccardo said. “I think this is a very interesting (and important) conversation, but one that is not going to get us to any results until there’s a court somewhere that indicates that this is actually constitutional.”

Davis said the cost to get a measure extending voting rights on the ballot would be roughly $3 million, and noted it could be better spent elsewhere.

However, others argue noncitizen voting has several benefits and is not a new practice in the United States. San Francisco State political science professor Ron Hayduk, who spoke as an expert to council, said 40 states allowed immigrant voting at some point in time between 1776 and 1926.

“For the majority of our history, noncitizens could vote,” Hayduk said. “But noncitizen voting was rolled back state by state, during periods of time with nativism and xenophobia.”

Hayduk said the practice ended in 1926 until an expansion of voting rights in 2021 in New York City, which resulted in an uptick in voter turnout.

Jose Servin, spokesperson with SIREN, speaks in support of expanding voting rights to noncitizen in San Jose. Photo by Jana Kadah.

‘The fate of a whole community’

Supporters say extending the right to vote in local elections is only fair because noncitizens in San Jose who pay taxes, contribute to the economy and shape the city’s culture deserve a say in policies affecting their community. In San Jose, immigrants including noncitizens paid $20 billion in state and local taxes alone, according to a 2019 study by the New American Economy, a bipartisan immigration research and advocacy nonprofit.

“It just doesn’t make sense for families who are here every single day to not be able to participate in the future,” Jose Murillo, director of finance at Amigos de Guadalupe, told San José Spotlight. “I think about my parents who are not U.S. citizens. My mom works at the school district helping kids, but she herself cannot help determine the fate of a whole community.”

However, opponents argue voting should be reserved for citizens and extending that right could lead to corruption.

“I’m sorry if people are waiting long to become a citizen, but this is a federal government issue so we should address it on a federal level—not on a local level,” said longtime District 8 resident Mariela, who did not disclose her last name. She worries the local proposal could allow hundreds of non-American, non-residents to flood elections and negatively impact the outcomes.

More than 40 people rallied outside San Jose City Hall in support of expanding voting rights before the study session, including members of groups such as Latinos United for a New America (LUNA), the Services, Immigrant Rights and Education Network (SIREN) and Amigos de Guadalupe.

“My family will be one of the benefactors if this decision takes effect,” said Yolanda Chavez, LUNA. “We will transform our schools and communities once we are able to choose who (is elected).”

Jose Servin, spokesperson for SIREN, said he’s fighting to expand voting rights to give a voice to the immigrants in the city who can’t cast ballots.

“We’ve been in these meetings, we’ve been taking to the streets, we’ve been out here making changes,” Servin said. “If they can charge taxes, they can let us vote.”

Carrasco and Arenas initially introduced the idea in January, hoping to get a ballot measure before voters this year. However, the city council would’ve had to approve a measure by Aug. 12 for it to be on the November ballot.

It’s unclear if the proposal will come back to council, but some remain hopeful.

“We have some time, so I don’t want to make it seem as though this is the last opportunity because it’s not,” Councilmember Raul Peralez said. “We’re merely beginning the first formal conversation in the form of a study session.”

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

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