A stack of "register to vote" pamphlets.
16 and 17-year-olds in Oakland and Berkeley could cast their first votes in the 2024 school board races. Credit: Amir Aziz

Oakland voters will soon decide whether noncitizen residents should be allowed to vote in local school district races.

Towards the end of a 12-hour meeting, the City Council voted on Tuesday to place an item on the November ballot that, if approved, would allow non-citizen residents who are the parent, guardian, or caregiver of a child under 18 to vote for Oakland Unified School District board members. The resolution was approved with affirmative votes from councilmembers Dan Kalb, Nikki Fortunato Bas, Sheng Thao, Loren Taylor, Treva Reid, and Rebecca Kaplan. Councilmembers Carroll Fife and Noel Gallo were absent.

Oakland is not the first Bay Area city to explore expanding voting rights to noncitizens—San Francisco passed a similar measure in 2016, and city councils in Richmond and San Jose have directed staff to examine their charters to determine whether it would be legal to allow non-citizens to vote in local elections. 

“It’s about strengthening democracy and people’s voice and presence,” said Jorge Lerma, a long-time educator and advocate, during Tuesday’s meeting. “All residents in Oakland provide wealth, and that includes non-U.S. citizens who pay taxes, provide labor, and bring business opportunities. Their children go to Oakland Unified School District schools and generate income to pay teachers and infrastructure, and yet don’t have a voice in selecting the representation they need.”

The measure could enfranchise 13,000 residents who aren’t citizens but care for a child in Oakland. In 2020, about 98,000 people voted in the school board races for districts 1, 3, 5, and 7. The measure has support from several local community organizations, including The Unity Council, Homies Empowerment, Priority Africa Network, Families In Action, GO Public Schools, Education Trust-West, and more. 

Federally, voting rights are only granted to naturalized citizens—residents who were born in the U.S. or went through the naturalization process. Undocumented immigrants and those who are legal permanent residents aren’t allowed to vote, but cities have begun to expand that right in local elections. 

Proponents of the Oakland ballot initiative said that immigrants contribute to the city as workers, taxpayers, and community members, and thus should be allowed to cast votes for school board members if they have children. 

“No one is suggesting that with the right to vote all of my children’s educational problems will go away,” said OUSD parent Mayra Gudiño during a press conference on Monday. “What I do hope is that I will stop being invisible and more importantly, my children will stop being invisible. I want us to be given the chance to vote in school board elections, that way our concerns can be heard.”

The exclusion of noncitizens from electoral politics also extends to running for local office. Cesar Cruz, an East Oakland community organizer and the founder of Homies Empowerment, was undocumented for most of his life but has paid taxes for 30 years and now has a green card. But because he doesn’t have U.S. citizenship, he’s been unable to compete in local races.

“I’m a parent in District 6, and when the District 6 [seat] became available, I thought about running for school board,” Cruz said on Monday. “But still the laws are unjust, and if you are not a citizen, you need not apply.”

OUSD is one of the most diverse districts in the state, with half of its students speaking a language other than English at home, and a third of all students classified as English learners. During the 2021-2022 school year, Oakland Unified had 2,683 newcomers, or students who arrived in the United States fewer than three years ago. 

District 1 Councilmember Dan Kalb, one of the sponsors of the resolution, told The Oaklandside he initially wanted to couple the provision with Measure QQ, a youth vote measure passed in 2020 that granted 16 and 17-year-olds the right to vote for school board members. But others wanted to keep the issues separate, and a coalition emerged this spring to push the noncitizen voting measure. If it’s successful, there could be efforts to expand voting for noncitizens to City Council and other local elections as well. 

“We’re trying to take things a step at a time. What cities have started with is the school board,” Kalb added. “Nothing is precluded from coming later that might do more if there’s interest.” 

If passed, the measure would face similar hurdles as the youth vote resolution, which is still being implemented. The registrar would need to update its voting software to recognize noncitizen residents and print separate ballots that only include school board races during election years. Outreach from community organizations would also be vital to getting people registered and addressing fears about immigration authorities being alerted.

“The number one rule for most immigrants—especially if you’re undocumented—is stay invisible,” said Maribel Gonzalez, the executive director of GO Public Schools, which is supporting the measure. “So at first glance, this is something that may feel scary and that feels like a risk. But it’s also an option. It won’t be mandatory. If it applies to you, you will be able to decide if you want to take advantage of it.”

It won’t be the only schools-related measure on the ballot in November. Voters in Districts 2, 4, and 6 will also be electing new representatives, and voters citywide could be asked to reauthorize Measure N, a parcel tax supporting Oakland high schools. 

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the ballot measure was supported by Centro Legal de la Raza. The organization chose not to take a position on this measure but offered to provide outreach support if it passes.

Ashley McBride writes about education equity for The Oaklandside. Her work covers Oakland’s public district and charter schools. Before joining The Oaklandside in 2020, Ashley was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Francisco Chronicle as a Hearst Journalism Fellow, and has held positions at the Poynter Institute and the Palm Beach Post. Ashley earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.