Two radically different voting proposals are headed to voters in the cities of Santa Ana and Huntington Beach next year, with city council members in both cities looking to change who and how people are able to vote. 

Santa Ana’s Democratic majority city council is looking to allow noncitizens to vote in local elections, with some elected officials saying it’s fair to allow them to vote since they regularly pay taxes and serve on city commissions.

Surf City’s Republican majority is looking to implement new voter ID laws to ensure that no one can access the ballot box without a government ID – an effort, the majority says, will add a layer of trust to the election system. 

Surf City’s Voter ID Law Proposal

Huntington Beach city council members moved forward with putting voter ID restrictions on the March Primary Election ballot on Tuesday night, with the council’s Republican majority approving the move in a 4-3 vote. 

The restrictions would only apply to voting in person – registered voters would still be able to vote by mail without providing any additional information other than their voter registration. 

Rather than wait until the 2024 presidential election, council members opted to put the question to the voters in the March primary along with several other initiatives, at a cost of nearly $460,000 to the city total. 

While the council didn’t discuss the measures in detail at their Tuesday meeting, they hosted several special meetings over the last month to discuss the issue, with conservative council members saying it would help ease concerns over whether the election was handled right. 

“To me, it’s just increasing faith in our elections and increasing voter turnout,” said Councilman Casey McKeon at the council’s Sept. 19 meeting discussing the issue.  

Council Member Casey McKeon of Huntington Beach at the Jan. 17. 2023 council meeting. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the US, with multiple studies finding little to no fraud, with one study by Loyola Law School that was published in the Washington Post finding that from 2000 to 2014 there were 31 credible instances of fraud out of over one billion votes cast. 

The series of debates regularly got heated, with McKeon and Councilman Dan Kalmick shouting over one another at the council’s Sept. 19 meeting. 

Kalmick insisted that the push for voter ID would only create more barriers for people to vote. 

“You are making it more difficult for people without resources to vote,” Kalmick said. “You’re creating a barrier that doesn’t exist currently for a constitutionally protected right.”  

McKeon and Councilwoman Gracey Van Der Mark disputed Kalmick’s argument, with McKeon adding that if people need to show ID to get on a plane, they should need one to vote. 

“It’s an absurd argument!” McKeon said. “This is the only aspect of your life you don’t have to show an identification card.” 

In addition to voter ID, the measure would also require the city to open additional locations for in person voting and would require security cameras to monitor ballot drop boxes. 

Mayor Tony Strickland and Van Der Mark will write the ballot measure supporting the idea, while the council members’ Democrat minority of Kalmick, Natalie Moser and Rhonda Bolton will be writing an opposition. 

Santa Ana Moves in Opposite Direction 

Things got equally heated in Santa Ana on Tuesday night, when a majority of City Council members directed staff to come back at their next meeting on Nov. 7 with a menu of possible ballot options that would expand voting in municipal elections to noncitizen residents of at least 30 days.

Council members Phil Bacerra, David Penaloza and Mayor Valerie Amezcua voted against putting the question to voters.

City Attorney Sonia Carvahlo said she would return in November with options on the exact question voters would be asked, including an amendment to the city charter.

“It’s never a bad thing to expand the franchise when we talk about who gets to vote,” said City Council member Thai Viet Phan, a proponent for the idea, who became the city’s first Vietnamese American council member after a voting rights lawsuit forced the city to redraw its ward maps to give the city’s west end Vietnamese Americans more voting power.

The Vera Institute has estimated that tens of thousands of non-citizens face the risk of deportation in Santa Ana. Phan and other council proponents of the ballot measure argued that without undocumented residents’ vote, municipal elections face gaps in constituent input. 

Phan argued that if the city allows undocumented residents to serve on its commissions, then undocumented residents should be able to have a greater say in who represents them – “not when you just show up to make public comments, but so you can actually vote.”

“We’re letting the residents of Santa Ana say, this is what we want, we want you to pursue this,” she added.

Critics of the idea – Bacerra, Penaloza, and Amezcua – called it “political theater” by the council’s younger, left-wing political faction. They alleged the majority voting bloc was taking people-power policy stances to look good for elections without thinking the policies through.

“If we want to do this right, we should slow down, take the time, do the research, meet with the city attorney, create an ad hoc, talk to the community, go out to every neighborhood association and talk to them, present it to them. But that is not what we’re doing,” said Amezcua.

Santa Ana Mayor Valerie Amezcua at the city council meeting on Dec. 13, 2022. (Omar Sanchez / Voice of OC)

The ballot question would appear in front of voters during the November 2024 Presidential Election, which is when turnout in city elections is usually highest.

Amezcua continued:

“There’s four people up here that are just jumping in the water cause it feels good, looks good – ra, ra, ra – pat yourself up on the back because ‘I’m saving my community.’ That is not what we should be doing up here. Creating jobs, bringing in businesses, generating revenue, looking at what the city is looking like in 2-5-10 years – That’s what we should be doing. That’s mature responsible leadership. That’s not what we’re doing up here.”

Amezcua said her opposition to the ballot measure wasn’t about noncitizen voting, but concerns that undocumented immigrants could risk forfeiting their chances at citizenship or permanent residency if they vote in local elections. 

“I would hate for somebody to get hurt,” Amezcua said.

In 1996, Congress passed a law banning noncitizens from voting in federal elections – those for the U.S. House, U.S. Senate, and President. The law does not prohibit noncitizens from voting in elections at the state and municipal level, though no state has expressly allowed it.

Councilmember Ben Vazquez said noncitizen voting isn’t unprecedented in California, citing the City of San Francisco. 

There, the California Court of Appeal this year upheld noncitizen voting in school board elections, after it was struck down by a local judge.

“We haven’t heard of anybody being held up for their citizenship,” Vazquez said.

Amezcua dismissed that notion.

“Because next year is the Presidential Election. And I don’t know who’s going to be president and things are going to change if we get a new president. And we’re going to be sitting here saying, ‘Oh, now people are being told they can’t be citizens because you voted. You voted in an election when you shouldn’t have voted.’ So when that happens I’m going to sit up here and thank this council and I’m going to come here and voice my opinion,” Amezcua said. 

She also argued that San Francisco’s implementation was more thought-out than the ballot measure idea before them that night.

“This is not about me not wanting to help immigrants. My family are immigrants — one side is immigrant, one side is pure Chicano. Born and raised here. Lived here. Talk about Chicano history, I can tell you all about it,” Amezcua said.

Carvalho, the City Attorney, said she’ll now have to nail down a definition for “noncitizens.”

“What I can propose to you is a full charter amendment. What the City of Oakland did is, they asked the question, if noncitizen voting should be permitted as adopted by further ordinance of city council, so I will probably come back with those options at the next meeting as I think it through,” she said.

She added that charter amendments often take a lot of time to deliberate, and that with past charter amendment discussions, “we would sometimes have one, two, three different versions to go through.”

At the next meeting, the options will come to council members “like a menu,” she said.

“And thank you for mentioning Oakland, because, give it a little bit of time, we’re going to look like Oakland pretty soon,” Amezcua replied.


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