San Francisco Judge Strikes Down Law That Let Non-Citizens Vote in School Board Elections

San Francisco Judge Strikes Down Law That Let Non-Citizens Vote in School Board Elections
Voter stickers in Pasadena, Calif., on May 19, 2009. (David McNew/Getty Images)
Mimi Nguyen Ly

A judge in California recently overturned a law that allowed non-citizen parents to vote in school board elections in San Francisco, saying it violates the constitution and statutes of the state.

The move was similar to a separate ruling in late June by a judge in New York, who struck down a law that would have allowed over 800,000 non-citizens to vote in local elections.
San Francisco Superior Court Judge Richard Ulmer Jr. said in his ruling (pdf), filed on July 29, that the California Constitution only allows citizens to vote.

"'A United States citizen 18 years of age and resident in this State may vote.' Transcendent law of California, the constitution ... reserves the vote to a 'United States citizen,' contrary to [the] San Francisco ordinance," Ulmer wrote.

The lawsuit concerns a charter amendment known as Proposition N (pdf) that was approved by San Francisco voters in 2016 on a ballot measure. It was the first such ordinance of its kind in the state.

The ballot measure asked whether the city would "allow a non-citizen resident of San Francisco who is of legal voting age and the parent, legal guardian or legally recognized caregiver of a child living in the San Francisco Unified School District to vote for members of the Board of Education."

The ordinance went into effect in January 2017, letting non-citizen parents vote for school board candidates as long as the parents were of legal voting age and were not in prison or on parole for a felony conviction, regardless of whether they were legal residents, such as green card holders and work visa holders, or illegal immigrants.

Under the charter amendment, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors was also given the authority to decide later whether the non-citizens could continue to vote in Board of Education elections, instead of requiring another subsequent ballot measure to reintroduce the measure when it expires in 2022. In November 2021, the board of supervisors decided to extend the measure indefinitely to allow non-citizens to vote beyond 2022.

California attorney James Lacy filed the lawsuit in March 2022 alongside associated conservative organizations, the United States Justice Foundation and the California Public Policy Foundation, against the city and county of San Francisco to challenge the ordinance.

In the complaint, (pdf) Lacy argued that San Francisco residents have "an undeniable interest in ensuring that their elections are conducted in accordance with controlling state law" largely because state taxpayers are funding school districts.

"When [San Francisco Unified School District] spends taxpayer funds, it is not spending local taxpayer funds; it is spending state taxpayer funds. In this regard, everyone in the state has an interest in SFUSD’s expenditures," the complaint reads. "From that interest, everyone in the state also has an interest in ensuring that SFUSD’s governing board is elected in accordance with state law."

The judge ruled in favor of Lacy on July 29, writing that the ordinance "is contrary to the California Constitution and state statutes and thus cannot stand."

Ulmer also issued a permanent injunction that bars the city from implementing the ordinance in future elections.

Lacy said in a statement that Ulmer's ruling was "a verdict in favor of election integrity in California."

"[T]his is an important case that reaffirms the core Constitutional notion that voting is a privilege of citizenship and that right cannot be diluted by allowing for noncitizen voting," he said in a statement, reported KABC.

Jen Kwart, spokesperson for City Attorney of San Francisco David Chiu, said that the ruling is disappointing, reported the San Francisco Chronicle.

"We believe that allowing noncitizen parents to vote in school board elections is not only legally permissible, but strongly beneficial to our communities,” Kwart said in a statement.

It is unclear whether the city would appeal to have the ordinance reinstated.