LAUSD Will Explore Letting Noncitizens Vote In School Board Elections

L.A. Unified School Board member Kelly Gonez embraces a supporter of a resolution to begin research on a "potential future ballot measure" to grant noncitizen parents the right to vote in the district's school board elections. (Kyle Stokes/LAist)

The Los Angeles Unified School District, which serves thousands of immigrant children, will explore whether to allow all parents — regardless of their citizenship status — to vote in the district's school board elections.

On Tuesday, L.A. Unified School Board members voted 6-0 to begin researching a "potential future ballot measure" that would extend limited voting rights to any noncitizen "parents, grandparents, legal guardians, or caregivers of a child" living within LAUSD's boundaries.

Immigrants rights groups cheered, saying the move could eventually empower thousands of parents who can't currently vote, but have a direct stake in LAUSD board decisions nonetheless.

One advocate even suggested allowing noncitizens to vote might boost depressingly-low election turnout. In the last LAUSD board election, 9.22% of eligible voters cast ballots.

Board member Kelly Gonez, who introduced the resolution last July, noted immigrants "pay local and federal taxes. They own property. They operate businesses. They volunteer in schools and contribute in countless ways to our communities, yet they currently can't choose ... their voice on the school board."

NONCITIZEN VOTING IS STILL A LONG WAYS AWAY

The board's action is still only a preliminary step. It could be years before noncitizens can actually cast ballots in LAUSD. Gonez noted that the district cannot act alone on the issue: the L.A. City Council, not the school board, would have to put forward the necessary ballot measure.

Gonez also acknowledged LAUSD may not be able to move forward at all unless officials can safeguard the privacy of any noncitizens the district registers to vote.

California law makes voter information public record, which has led to concerns that any unauthorized immigrants who join the voting rolls would effectively disclose their address to federal immigration enforcement. For this reason, when the San Francisco Unified School District debuted noncitizen voting in its elections last year, only 49 people registered.

LAUSD's resolution will convene a study group of immigrants rights groups and election experts to find "strategies for assuring the confidentiality" of noncitizens who register.

'I KNOW WHAT RACISM IS CAPABLE OF'

At Tuesday's meeeting, board member George McKenna said he was concerned that his colleagues were making a promise they couldn't keep. He abstained from the vote, saying he's supportive of expanding voting rights but worried that LAUSD wouldn't be able to protect noncitizens' privacy if authorities in the Trump administration pressed the issue.

"The implementation frightens me, because I know what racism is capable of — I've seen it," said McKenna, an African-American who grew up in Jim Crow-era New Orleans.

Gonez stressed the board was only calling for formal study of the issue — a study that would not put immigrants at immediate risk.

"I have undocumented family members," Gonez said. "I would never do anything that would put them at harm's risk and the implication that that might not be true is deeply offensive."

Board member Mónica García urged her colleagues not to act too cautiously. She encouraged the board to move forward "even if we are unable to offer people protection."

García argued that even if LAUSD didn't authorize noncitizens to vote, federal authorities could use other means to access their personal information — the state's drivers license database, U.S. Census responses or other "things that aren't meant to be done."

"If we say, 'We're going to create it if nobody gets hurt,'" García said, "we have to realize that today, people are hurt."

LAUSD'S CHANGING ELECTORATE

LAUSD does not keep records on the citizenship status of its students or their parents, but numerous estimates suggest LAUSD enrolls a significant population of noncitizen students.

In the L.A. metro area, one estimate holds that 42 percent of children have at least one parent who is not a U.S. citizen. In California, perhaps 1 in 8 children has at least one parent who's not authorized to live in the U.S. An overwhelming majority of these immigrants come from Latin America.

But advocates note this influx of immigrant diversity has yet to change the profile of a typical LAUSD voter. Turnout data suggest the typical voter in a school board election is more likely to be white than the typical LAUSD parent, who is more likely to be Latino.

"You have two bases of constituents," said Lester Garcia, political director for the SEIU Local 99 labor union, in testimony before the school board. "There are the parents in your schools, and the people who voted you into office. And if we do a Venn diagram, there's not a whole lot of folks who meet both of those criteria."

"Without a means of representation," said Jack Suria Linares of the immigrants rights group CARECEN, "families remain disenfranchised and marginalized in their own communities."