Voting is one of the fundamental rights in the United States that only came about through centuries of blood, sweat, and protest. Despite the enormous amount of progress that has been made on both the national and state level, voter disenfranchisement still remains a reality for the 531,200 noncitizen residents living in San Diego County. However, if San Diego is to be a champion in fostering a politically engaged community while also creating an environment that does not leave any resident’s voice unheard, the county must extend enfranchisement to all residents, regardless of citizenship status.
Noncitizen resident voter enfranchisement remains a contentious issue across the country. After San Francisco passed a measure allowing noncitizen parents to vote in school board elections, the validity of granting noncitizen residents a fundamental citizen’s privilege became the center of a moral and legal debate. However, according to the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, noncitizen residents are only legally barred from participating in federal elections; state and lower-level elections are up to their respective entities. So far, San Francisco and a handful of cities in Maryland have been the only ones to extend enfranchisement to the non-citizens residing in their jurisdictions.
However, even if one is not a U.S. citizen, he or she is still affected as much, if not more, by the legislation pushed for by elected officials, which is directed at citizens residing under the same jurisdiction. Everyone who resides under the rule of any given elected office should have a say in who fills that position. Furthermore, by enfranchising non-citizen residents, San Diego would have greater input in the legislation and measures governing the county while also gaining a better understanding of what everyone who calls San Diego home actually wants to see accomplished on a governmental level.
This is why San Diego County should extend voting rights to its 531,200 noncitizen residents in all elections from the county level downward. Noncitizen residents would be able to vote in races for the county board, various mayorships around the county, and numerous measures affecting all residents on both a county and city level. Eligibility to register to vote for noncitizen residents would only require a prospective voter to sub legal address and date of birth. This is the same standard currently in place in San Francisco.
Considering that San Diego County is unique in being both an ideologically conservative region of the state and home to one of the largest sanctuary cities in the country, backlash to this type of legal proposal would likely be raised under the notion that it would enable undocumented immigrants to vote. While this is true, undocumented immigrants only account for 32 percent of noncitizens living in the region. Rather than working to only enfranchise a specific demographic that has become the target of xenophobia, this law would empower the thousands of noncitizen students, working professionals, and undocumented immigrants who call San Diego their permanent home.
Noncitizen resident suffrage is one of a handful of remaining voting rights issues to be resolved in the United States. San Diego County has the unique opportunity to follow San Francisco’s example and be at the forefront of solution efforts for this contemporary debate. By enfranchising noncitizen residents, San Diego County will not only be allowing a larger portion of the population to have a say in the laws that govern it, but it will also stand at the justice end of the moral arc of the nation.
Photo by Jacob Sutherland for the UCSD Guardian.