While undocumented immigrants remain barred from voting in federal elections, Santa Ana could join other parts of the U.S. that have in recent years allowed noncitizen voting at the local level.
As they debated city charter amendments at their July 19 meeting, most City Council members indicated support for a ballot measure opening local elections up to more people living in Santa Ana but born outside the U.S.
If passed by voters, Santa Ana would join a list of cities across the country – from as large as San Francisco and New York City (where a judge recently struck down the law) to even smaller towns like Montpelier and Winooski in Vermont – that have pushed for such expansions of civic participation to residents without citizenship status.
“These are people who pay taxes. These are people who live in our community,” said Councilmember Johnathan Ryan Hernandez, who proposed the new idea in the middle of an existing discussion on city policy revisions that would need to go before voters in November.
More than 82,000 undocumented people are believed to live in Santa Ana, according to American Community Survey estimates from 2020. More than 60,000 residents in town were born outside the U.S. but have naturalized, according to the same set of estimates.
“I would like to see us include language that would allow voters to decide if residents who are non-citizens should be able to vote in our elections,” Hernandez said at last Tuesday’s meeting.
The idea got traction among most of his colleagues, for staff to come back with a recommendation at a future meeting, including Mayor Vicente Sarmiento, who noted from the dais that, at least in spirit, the idea “already (has) precedent” in town.
Specifically, the majority Latino city allows undocumented residents to sit on city boards and commissions – a policy change made officially in March last year.
In Santa Ana, Sarmiento said, people of undocumented status – who tend to confront some of the city’s most pressing quality of life issues – “sometimes are more vested” in city affairs “than voting members.”
“We have other cities that have done this and this can be legally upheld,” Sarmiento said, expressing the need for “a bit more robust explanation for it.”
The idea would have to come back to council members some time before the Aug. 12 filing deadline for city ballot measures. The City Council’s last regularly-scheduled meeting before then is Aug. 2.
Council members Sarmiento, Hernandez, Thai Viet Phan, Jessie Lopez and Nelida Mendoza supported the idea that evening.
But two did not: Phil Bacerra – who at last Tuesday’s meeting said he didn’t support approving something proposed on the spot – and David Penaloza.
Both council members tend to disagree with the ideas pushed by an opposing political camp on the dais, under Sarmiento. And the proposal by Hernandez, who’s frequently aligned with Sarmiento on certain issues, came during what was already a contentious debate that night about the existing, proposed city policy revisions before them.
Aside from that, Penaloza said in a Friday phone interview, “I’m not supportive of it coming as a charter amendment this election cycle, mainly because these are the midterms.”
Penaloza argued the idea’s approval would hinge on what’s generally a smaller midterm election voter turnout compared to presidential election years.
But Penaloza said “it’s a valid discussion to have” and that he does see “a benefit to increasing the democratic process for a huge area of our community.”
“But how do we make sure it’s feasible?” Penaloza said, arguing the city could step into legal mud.
Namely, Penaloza invoked the stricken law in New York, where a state supreme court judge from Staten Island said it ran afoul of the New York state constitution, according to the New York Times, which applies voting eligibility to citizens meeting adult age and residency requirements.
A legal expert interviewed by the Times, as well as proponents of the law, argued the New York constitution’s language didn’t translate to an express exclusion of noncitizens who meet the age and residency requirements.
Hernandez, asked about Penaloza’s counters in a Friday phone interview, said policymakers in town shouldn’t get stuck over something like noncitizen voting’s technical or logistical feasibility, especially when he said it would enfranchise a big chunk of the city’s population.
“I get disappointed when I see colleagues oppose legislation that’s about making this place better than we found it,” Hernandez said. “If there is ever an opportunity to make the right decision – it is going to come with political backlash. It is going to come with a challenge.”