A hand drops a signed ballot into a secure ballot drop box in Alameda County
Oakland plans to expand voting rights to noncitizen parents for OUSD board elections. Credit: Amir Aziz

Thousands of parents in Oakland are one step closer to being enfranchised—at least in local school board races. 

An Alameda County court recently dismissed a case brought by the United States Justice Foundation, a conservative legal organization that filed a lawsuit against the city soon after voters approved Measure S. The law allows noncitizen parents in Oakland to vote in school board elections. James Lacy, the founder and president of the United States Justice Foundation, had requested that the case be dismissed.

Last week, Lacy told the San Francisco Chronicle he wouldn’t appeal a ruling against his organization’s challenge to a similar San Francisco ordinance, which likely clears the way for Oakland’s measure to be implemented.

“The question at the heart of this lawsuit is whether parents and guardians, regardless of citizenship status, should have a voice in their children’s education,” said Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker in a statement to The Oaklandside. “A California Court of Appeal recently upheld San Francisco’s noncitizen voting ordinance for school board elections, setting a precedent that the Lacy lawsuit is unlikely to overturn. The dismissal of this discriminatory lawsuit is a positive outcome for the City of Oakland.”

In order for the voting law to go into effect, the Oakland City Council needs to pass an ordinance amending the city charter. The council has signaled support for the expansion of voting rights—it was Councilmembers Dan Kalb and Treva Reid who introduced the resolution last year that placed the measure on the November 2022 General Election ballot. It passed with about 67% approval. 

Kalb, who represents District 1, said he plans to bring an ordinance forward, possibly early next year. 

“We have a responsibility to the voters, who overwhelmingly said yes to this. Now that the courts have cleared the way, now’s the time to move forward,” Kalb told The Oaklandside. “Parents of school-aged children, no matter who those children are, should be allowed to help decide who runs the schools.”

Lacy, who lives in Orange County, initially filed suit with a group of plaintiffs last August, asking the courts to prevent Measure S from being placed on the November ballot, which the court did not grant. In December, Lacy and his United States Justice Foundation filed a complaint against the city of Oakland arguing that the California constitution states that a U.S. citizen 18 years or older and resident of California may vote, and thus the City Council does not have the power to establish new voting rights for others. 

“Oakland’s ‘home rule’ powers do not allow it to create noncitizen voting rights because, inter alia, school board elections are not a municipal affair, and voter qualifications is an issue of statewide concern, not subject to local regulation by a charter city,” the complaint states. 

Community groups who supported Measure S are applauding the latest developments, which they said could open the door to more political involvement by underrepresented groups in Oakland. They estimated about 60,000 Oakland residents are noncitizens, and 13,000 of those are parents who send their children to Oakland schools.

“As Black immigrants, particularly East African immigrants, continue to grow in the Bay Area—they’re one of the fastest growing populations in the Bay Area—it becomes imperative for them to have a say in what happens in their children’s education,” said Priscilla Ankrah, program director for Priority Africa Network, an advocacy organization for Black immigrant groups in the Bay Area. “This is one step in a larger vision of higher political engagement for our community.

Supporters also anticipate some hesitancy from those who may have fears about revealing themselves as noncitizens and registering to vote. Kimi Kean, the executive director for Families in Action, an education advocacy group, said getting people registered will require grassroots organizing and trusting relationships to help ease those fears. 

“We’re a sanctuary city and we really need to work closely with our city partners to make sure parents understand their rights and how their information will be protected,” Kean said. “We don’t think handing out flyers or just putting stuff up on a website is going to do the trick. We’re going to put our people on the ground, talking and spreading the word in the community.”

Another barrier will be implementation. In 2020, Oakland voters approved Measure QQ, which lowers the voting age to 16 for school board races. The Alameda County Registrar of Voters failed to come up with a plan for making changes to the voting system that would allow youth to vote, and printing separate ballots for youth voters. 

Berkeley voters passed a similar youth-voting measure in 2016, and it has also yet to be implemented.

“Potentially the key roadblock will be the county registrar of voters. We in the city council could pass such an ordinance probably unanimously, but the registrar of voters has to be willing to help facilitate the implementation,” Kalb said. “Let’s move forward and do what we can do at the city council level, but we’re still going to have some challenges at the county level.”

Earlier this year, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors directed the registrar to implement the Oakland and Berkeley youth vote measures by November 2024. Next year, Oakland school board directors in districts 1, 3, 5, and 7 will be up for election.

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.