Column: Let noncitizens vote. What’s the worst that could happen?


As if President Trump’s America needed more reason to hate California, here comes news that San Francisco began to register noncitizens last week to vote for local school board races this November.

Actually, it’s old news: Voters OK’d the plan in 2016 with the passage of Measure N. But its implementation has triggered Fox News and their peers, and has Republican politicians whispering that this is the latest Democratic plot to use undocumented Mexicans to destroy America — never mind that most of the people now eligible to vote in San Francisco are actually Chinese.

For the record:

3:40 p.m. July 25, 2018This column initially stated that Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra would run in 2020. Actually he’s running in 2018.

Conservatives need to calm down. Noncitizen voting already is happening in some Maryland towns, and democracy there is still alive. Giving them access to the ballot box is a great gesture — it lets more people hold government accountable, adds a shot of vitality to our democracy, blah blah blah.


But why stop at San Francisco? The state Legislature should move toward letting noncitizen residents — over 18, of course — vote in all local and state elections.

California already grants driver’s licenses for undocumented folks and is a sanctuary state. Why not take the next logical step?

It’s a steep task that will require changing California’s Constitution. But the achievement would ensure that at a time when the state is more inequitable than ever, everyone has a voice.

Noncitizens, legal and not, are ready. Many have been residents for decades; the younger ones learned the principles of American democracy in our school systems, and some use that knowledge to volunteer for candidates and causes. Their economic power and concern for our collective future is qualification enough to earn a place in the voting booth.

How is it just that an adult who’s lived in El Monte for more than two decades has less of a say in California politics than a native New Yorker who’s lived in Highland Park for less than a year only because the latter is a citizen and the former isn’t?

Barring noncitizens from voting is not only illogical but also ahistorical. Noncitizens participated in local, state and even federal elections almost from the start of the Republic. The book “Democracy for All: Restoring Immigrant Voting Rights in the U.S.” discusses at length this phenomenon, noting that “this 150-year history has been eviscerated from national memory.”


Our founding fathers and pioneers knew in their time what should seem obvious today: People who have a stake in the well-being of their communities should have the chance to choose who represents them, regardless of documentation.

Of course, those same men also denied suffrage to groups they deemed dangerous. Slaves. African Americans decades after emancipation. Women. And as more people came from countries that weren’t considered “white,” immigrants.

Bigotry, not lack of citizenship, has always driven disenfranchisement. So it makes perfect sense that conservatives are angry about the San Francisco case: Noncitizens are the bogeyman of the moment.

But I’d argue that including noncitizens in elections might be the last chance to make the Republican Party relevant again in California.

Imagine if GOP firebrands like Devin Nunes or Kevin McCarthy suddenly had to moderate their message lest they face the wrath of the angry, undocumented farmworkers who make up a significant chunk of their rural congressional districts. Then they might appeal to citizens too. Besides, conservative politicians might find immigrant voters more receptive than not to the GOP message of less government and more family values.

Too bad the GOP won’t even consider this possibility — an example of a political party that can’t see the burrito for the beans.

So forget them. California already grants driver’s licenses for undocumented folks and is a sanctuary state. Why not take the next logical step?

Enter the Fray: First takes on the news of the minute from L.A. Times Opinion »

In 2020, there are no statewide offices up for grabs. So let’s have Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra travel the state and urge noncitizens to push for the vote. They’ll surely value enfranchisement more than born-and-bred citizens, who make a true mockery of democracy through low participation. (Only 37% of registered voters bothered with this year’s primary.)

The year 2020 is also when Trump plans to run again, and he’ll no doubt rail against our grand experiment. But that’s another opportunity for California to act as the vanguard against Trump and his posse.

What’s the worst that can happen? Trump and U.S. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions target us even more? Meh. “They who have no voice or vote in the electing of representatives do not enjoy liberty,” Benjamin Franklin wrote back in the day, “but are absolutely enslaved to those who have votes and their representatives.”

Slavery ended more than 150 years ago. Let noncitizens vote.

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