S.F. Poised To Allow Non-Citizens To Vote -- Why That's Not Unusual

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Vote, ladies...
Board Prez David Chiu says allowing immigrants to vote for school board would be neither expensive nor unusual

Throw this one on the pile of things out-of-towners love to hate about our city. It's the place where you can't buy a soda out of a soda machine, can't buy a pet, can't buy bottled water and carry it off in a plastic bag -- and non-citizens get to vote. Surly San Francisco is ready to crack off from the mainland and float off into a socialistic sea of self-absorption.

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Not so fast, says Board of Supervisors president David Chiu. While he's come under fire for his proposed charter amendment to allow the non-citizen parents of students to vote in San Francisco school board elections, Chiu is willing to say something unusual for a San Francisco politician: We're not the first to do this; we're not even all that original.

Non-citizens voted in New York City school board elections from 1969 until the dissolution of school boards several decades ago and have voted in Chicago school board elections from 1989 to the present. Six different Maryland municipalities allow non-citizens to vote in local elections.

Chiu recites these facts off one by one as he thumbs through Democracy For All: Restoring Immigrant Voting Rights in the United States by professor Ron Hayduk of City University of New York. (Hayduk also has a website, which Chiu obviously checks frequently). Chiu is happy to inform anyone who'll listen that 22 states and territories allowed non-citizens to vote and even hold office from the nation's inception until as late as the 1920s. "This practice was encouraged by the founding fathers, who felt that voting gave immigrants a stake in this country," says Chiu.

Those of you with long memories may recall a previous effort to award non-citizens the right to vote helmed by Chiu. In 2004, Proposition F narrowly failed. While, yes, one San Francisco school child out of three has an immigrant parent and, yes, studies show parents who have a stake in their children's education have children who do better in school -- holding a special election for immigrants would cost a lot. How much? Close to $800,000 to essentially have a separate, same-day election.

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David Chiu
Chiu, however, says he thinks his measure could be done right for less than a tenth of that. "If we were to use absentee ballots, which would be preferable ... for both voters and the election department, it'd cost considerably less," he says. "I have been told something to the tune of $75,000."

It remains to be seen if that kind of money will override San Francisco voters' desire to allow immigrant parents to vote for school board members. Remember, we're the city that refused to rename its sewage treatment plant after George W. Bush over a matter of $50,000.

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