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Legislative Proposal Would Allow Noncitizens To Vote In School Board Elections

tom.arthur/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

A proposal in the Illinois Senate would allow noncitizens to vote in local school board elections. But even supporters of the proposal say the legislation is not yet ready for primetime.

Since at least 1996, it has been illegal for noncitizens to vote in federal elections. Certain municipalities across the country, however, have allowed the practice for local elections.

In Chicago, noncitizens already have the right to vote in elections for local school councils -- some of which pick a school’s principal but others only who serve as advisory bodies. But with Gov. JB Pritzker poised to sign an elected Chicago school board bill into law, noncitizen participation in school board elections has been given new life.

In a committee hearing last week, State Sen. Celina Villanueva (D-Chicago) argued now is the perfect time to highlight neglected noncitizen voices in elections where the stakes are high for their children.

“For too long, these families have been systematically excluded from participating in our democracy, even at the most basic level,” Villanueva said. “We owe it to them, to our young learners and to our city to bring them into the process. We talk a lot in this body about diversity, equity and inclusion, and now we have the chance to put those words into action.”

Proponents of the proposal, however, said the current bill needs to be retooled in order to not create needless hurdles for voters to participate, or result in any unintended consequences.

Under the legislation as drafted, the State Board of Education would be responsible for distributing separate voter registration forms for noncitizen voters.

Nubia Willman of the Office of New Americans — a department within the Chicago Mayor’s office — said because the form would require the person to list their residence, it could lead to noncitizen voters being deported if not properly advised by an immigration attorney — a service that’s cost-prohibitive to many.

“The reality is that access to an attorney or an accredited representative to provide free or low cost consultation will be difficult as there is a shortage of affordable legal services in Chicago and throughout the state,” Willman said. “The likelier result will be that noncitizen voters will either participate without receiving appropriate counsel or opt out of participating altogether.”

“For those who do participate, there would be no room for error,” she continued. “Voting in an election where one is not eligible not only carries consequences in the state’s justice system, but can result in serious ramifications in one's immigration options. Without detailed processes in place, an individual could erroneously register to vote or claim citizenship, which could result in dire immigration consequences, including deportation.”

Other supporters voiced concern that the proposal does not address foreign language assistance procedures and that voting would only be limited to noncitizens who are parents.

Fred Tsao of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights said nonparents like himself possess a stake in their communities and to the education of children in the community and thus also deserve the right to vote.

“We do not restrict voting for school boards to parents, guardians and caregivers among citizens, and I would ask that no similar restriction be placed on noncitizen voting either,” Tsao said.

The other paramount issue that would need to be addressed would be figuring out the logistical process of voting. Tom Bride, executive director of the Peoria County Election Commission and who spoke on behalf of the Illinois Association of County Clerks and Recorders, said one of the complications would be noncitizens needing to register with individual school boards.

Those school boards would then need to submit voter affidavits to election authority offices in order for names to be entered into a secondary database. This process becomes more complicated when school districts stretch across different county lines and when there are a high number of school boards in a single county.

Additionally, in Illinois, school board elections are typically held during the same time as other municipal elections for city and township positions. As a result, election authorities would need to create separate ballots that only contain the information for school board candidates.

Bride said places like San Francisco operate their noncitizen school board elections concurrently with other contests. However, their efforts to better incorporate noncitizen voices from the electorate have been slow.

“I was surprised at the low amount of turnout,” Bride said. “In the 2019 election in San Francisco, they had six voters register and two vote, which I think points out some issues with people understanding the process or willing to take part in the process.”

But State Sen. Omar Aquino (D-Chicago) said he believes the myriad number of immigration advocacy groups in Illinois would be able to get the word out to noncitizen voters were the proposal to pass. Additionally, Aquino argued there are multiple reasons for noncitizens to be civically involved beyond just having a say on the education their children receive.

“When you are a resident of the state and an immigrant, be it if you're undocumented or not, you are a taxpayer in this state,” Aquino said. “We owe it to those folks that are taxpayers that, you know, sometimes have taxation without representation to actually make sure that the most American thing is to make sure that they have the ability to vote for their representation, to have a voice in that.”

Willman of Chicago’s mayor’s office said she’s concerned information from a secondary voter database could be shared with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office and would go against Chicago’s status as a sanctuary city.

“As a welcoming city, Chicago morally opposes sharing information about noncitizens to ICE and unnecessarily placing them at risk for immigration enforcement,” Willman said. “Creating a database of citizens and noncitizens without safety precautions to protect information is risky and disconcerting.”

According to the proposal, voter registration affidavits for noncitizens would include the following warning;

“Any information you provide to the local school board, including your name and address, may be obtained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and other agencies, organizations, and individuals. In addition, if you apply for naturalization, you will be asked whether you have ever registered or voted in a federal, state, or local election in the United States. You may wish to consult with an immigration attorney, an organization that protects immigrant rights, or other knowledgeable source before registering to vote in a local school board election."

Derek Cantù is NPR Illinois' graduate student Public Affairs Reporting intern for the spring 2021 legislative session.
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