OAKLAND — Thousands of noncitizen parents of Oakland Unified students would be allowed to vote in school board elections if a proposal by city leaders makes it to the ballot and is approved by city residents.
“These are parents of kids in the schools. Shouldn’t they have a say in who runs the school system?” Councilmember Dan Kalb, who intends to shepherd the proposal along with Councilmember Treva Reid, said Tuesday. “It just makes sense.”
If the full council agrees next month and places a measure on the November ballot, city residents will decide whether parents and guardians of children under age 18 get to cast their votes for school board candidates.
As envisioned by Kalb and Reid, the measure would not distinguish between immigrants who have legal residency or work status and those who are undocumented. They said approximately 13,000 people could be eligible to vote.
The idea of expanding voting rights to immigrants who don’t hold citizenship papers isn’t precedent setting.
Citizenship had little bearing on voting rights in the early days of the founding of the U.S., though it became an issue from time to time over the next couple hundred years depending on the sentiment toward immigrants at any given time. While virtually all of the United States have barred noncitizens from voting since the 1920s, federal law does not require that only citizens vote in state or local elections.
In 2016, San Francisco became one of the first cities in recent history to allow noncitizen parents to vote in school board elections.
Earlier this year, New York City allowed legal residents who are not citizens to vote in all municipal elections if they’re green card holders, immigrants under the federal DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program or have the right to work in the United States.
And in January, the San Jose City Council decided to study the possibility of allowing noncitizens to vote in municipal elections. But they’re not pressing to get a measure on this November’s ballot.
San Jose councilmember and mayoral candidate Dev Davis voted against the idea. In a blog post on her mayoral campaign website, Davis says “voting is a right and responsibility of citizenship” — a view shared by other opponents across the country who believe people must accept the duties of citizenship before they can vote. They also argue that allowing immigrants to vote will remove a motive for seeking citizenship.
In their memo to Oakland City Council and school board members who jointly met on the subject Monday, Kalb and Reid dismissed the sentiment of excluding noncitizens from voting as “rooted in racism and xenophobia.”
Several parents and advocates for immigrant families attended the meeting to support the proposal.
“Currently, people who have the right to vote do not represent all of us,” Mario Rodriguez, the parent of two children in Oakland charter schools, said in Spanish. “Those of us who have children in schools need the political power to make the best decision about the education of our children,” he said.
Another parent, who identified herself on Zoom as Fabiola, said that for six years her son struggled at his Oakland school without the individualized education plan he needed. As an immigrant who does not speak much English, she said, her advocacy for him seemingly went nowhere until very recently.
“His needs were ignored,” she said in Spanish. “Parents like me need to be able to vote so we are not ignored.”
Nunu Kidane, executive director of Priority Africa Network, an Oakland-based organization that works with and represents Black immigrants, said Black immigrant families in Oakland have often felt similarly disconnected.
While Priority Africa Network seeks to help them, Kidane said those families would “like very much an opportunity to have their voices heard on matters of their children’s education.”
This expansion of voting rights would allow them and other immigrants to have more of a say in their children’s education, Kidane explained.
Reid cited data showing that about 13,000 noncitizen parents, guardians and caregivers send their children to Oakland schools. About 3,000 of the district’s 35,000 students are categorized as “newcomers,” meaning they have been in the U.S. for less than three years and have a home language that is not English.
“No parent or guardian should feel ignored,” Reid said. “They want to be seen and heard with their voice and vote.”
That change was estimated to cost an extra $7,000 to $10,000 in printing and work by the Alameda County Registrar of Voters’ office.
It’s unclear what has caused the delay, but Kalb said the parties are “still working to finalize that process.”
Alameda County Registrar of Voters Tim Dupuis did not respond to questions about the status of Measure QQ’s implementation.
Kalb said lessons learned from the delay will be applied if the proposal to let noncitizens vote in school board meetings comes to pass.
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