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A Proposal To Let Santa Ana’s Non-Citizens Vote Is Shelved — For Now

A pile of 'I Voted' stickers is spread across a wooden table.
Currently only U.S. citizens can register to vote in primary and general elections in California.
(Caleigh Wells
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A proposal for a Santa Ana charter amendment that would let non-citizens vote in the city’s elections won’t be on the November ballot, but it’s part of a trend that’s drawn legal challenges as more cities around the country tried adopting similar measures.

Santa Ana Proposal For Non-Citizen Voting Won't Move Forward - For Now

Santa Ana City Councilmember Johnathan Ryan Hernandez proposed the idea last month, as his colleagues reviewed several proposed amendments to the city charter. He offered a suggestion that wasn’t on the list: Why not let city residents who aren’t U.S. citizens vote in local elections?

“These are taxpayers.” Hernandez told LAist. “They pay lots of money into our city.”

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He cited Santa Ana’s large foreign-born population — nearly 43% of the city’s residents, according to census data.

“Taking into account that we have a large immigrant community and a large refugee community,” Hernandez said, “I figure the best way to empower them is to let them vote locally.”

The idea would be to let city residents who are undocumented or who have legal resident status but are not U.S. citizens vote in Santa Ana’s city council and school board elections.

Currently, to register to vote in general and primary elections in California, one must be a U.S. citizen, a resident of the state, and at least 18 as of Election Day. Non-citizens are prohibited from voting in federal elections.

Last year, Santa Ana adopted a rule allowing non-citizens to serve on city boards, commissions and committees. It wasn’t a first: In 2015, Huntington Park appointed two undocumented residents to commission seats.

A San Francisco Rule Is Struck Down

The voting aspect is trickier, however. Last year, the Vermont state legislature approved city charter changes for two municipalities that allow non-citizens to vote, and some Maryland cities have adopted similar rules. But legal challenges abound.

On Friday, a judge in San Francisco struck down a 2016 rule that allowed non-citizen parents to vote in that city’s school board elections, after a conservative Orange County-based author and lawyer sued San Francisco city and county. The judge concluded the measure ran afoul of the state’s constitution. And in June, a judge in New York Citystruck down a rule from late last year that would have allowed non-citizens to vote in that city’s local elections.

In Santa Ana, several councilmembers initially supported Hernandez’s idea, but others worried it might violate the law.

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“It would be a legal nightmare for the city,” Councilmember David Peñaloza told LAist. “It would definitely be challenged.”

In the end, the city’s charter amendments are moving forward without the non-citizen voting proposal for now; the Santa Ana city manager’s office said there’s not enough time for city staff to research the idea ahead of this November’s ballot.

But Hernandez told LAist last week he’s optimistic that, with careful legal vetting, his proposal could make it onto the 2024 ballot.

“I wish that it could be on the ballot for this year, but we would hate for us to introduce something in a very quick turnaround, and it gets shot down,” Hernandez said. “So we need to be strategic in making sure that if it is something that we bring to the table, it is something that we are going to be able to defend.”

If the non-citizen voting idea does eventually move ahead in Santa Ana and survive legal challenges, it might not translate to higher turnout, said Matt Lesenyie, assistant professor of political science at Cal State Long Beach. He noted that some immigrants would be afraid to participate.

“Some will be skeptical and say, ‘Well, now they'll know where to find me, and that is not worth whatever agency I gain from voting in the city election,’” Lesenyie said.

What questions do you have about immigration and emerging communities in LA?