Next November, Santa Ana voters will decide whether noncitizens can vote in citywide elections as early as 2028. 

City Council members narrowly approved sending the question to voters as a ballot measure in the 2024 Presidential Election. 

Voting in support of the ballot measure at their regular, Tuesday meeting were council members Jessie Lopez, Thai Viet Phan, Ben Vazquez and Johnathan Ryan Hernandez. 

Voting against it were council members Phil Bacerra, David Penaloza and Mayor Valerie Amezcua. 

“If you were to move forward with this proposal, it would be the first of its type in the State of California that deals with things other than noncitizen voting in elections involving school board members, for example,” said council members’ top legal advisor, City Attorney Sonia Carvalho, before the vote. 

If approved, staff warned it would almost certainly face a legal challenge.

And some council members – who opposed the noncitizen voting ballot question – publicly encouraged it.

Citing the potentially heavy cost of defending noncitizen voting from lawsuits – and potentially establishing a new system for voter registration, ballots, and ballot counting machines – critics on the council called it a “rash” idea that City Hall staff haven’t had enough time to study.

“I know for a fact we are going to be in litigation,” said Amezcua, who with Bacerra and Penaloza have clashed bitterly with the dais’ progressive majority this year. “I know it and I welcome it.”

City Hall in Santa Ana, Calif. on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022. Credit: Zia Bella Blair

Proponents on the council said the proposal that night was simply to ask voters whether it was something they wanted, and that although it will cost the public purse to see through, noncitizens are still taxpayers, constantly feeding Santa Ana’s general fund. 

“Expanding the franchise has never been easy in this country,” said City Councilmember Thai Viet Phan before the vote. “It was local governments that gave women the right to vote before the 19th Amendment.”

But like many policy discussions at City Hall these days, arguments about the proposal’s merits soon became personal, like when Bacerra and Penaloza dismissed proponents in the audience and those from several local legal clinics, like the UC Irvine School of Law’s immigrant rights center, as “armchair lawyers” chasing paychecks.

In response, Phan used some of her speaking time to list off the legal experience of the supportive letters’ signatories while Lopez called Penaloza’s remarks “gross.”

Bacerra said progressives on the council were pushing this to look good ahead of the election cycle. 

Penaloza called it “a valid discussion to have,” but “that discussion isn’t happening.”

“We are throwing this to city staff with zero direction,” he said, adding that he and all council members took an oath, when sworn in, to defend the U.S. against all enemies “foreign and domestic.”

“Which we have right here,” he said.

During the meeting, City Manager Steven Mendoza said staff weren’t able to proactively research the impacts of the measure, while Carvalho said publicly that she wished staff had more time to study how the new election system would work.

While council members at one point considered implementing the law – if approved – by 2026, Phan moved the date to 2028 with allied colleagues’ support, “to ensure we have the time to implement the things our residents are voting for.”

“If the voters of the City of Santa Ana don’t want it, we won’t have it,” Phan said. “If we do hear from voters that ‘We want this and this is right,’ then we should do it. I don’t think that’s really complicated.”

The Santa Ana City Council on Dec. 13, 2022. (Omar Sanchez / Voice of OC)

Between 70,000 and 80,000 Santa Ana residents are believed to be undocumented, according to five-year estimates from 2021 by the U.S. Census Bureau. 

If voters approve the measure, Carvalho suggested that council members budget around $500,000 for legal costs “that could potentially take us through some initial challenges,” given the fierce debate that’s surrounded the idea this year.

The contention continued throughout the public comment portion, with residents speaking for and against the idea on Tuesday.

It led to explosive moments at the speaker podium, from which public commenters shouted over boos or flat out refused to leave the microphone despite being limited to two minutes. 

“If it goes through multiple levels of appeals, I could see you maybe doubling that ($500,000 estimate) and it could take several years,” said Carvalho to council members. “Can I predict with certainty? I cannot.”

In San Francisco, noncitizen voting in school board elections was upheld by an appeals court after legal challenges by opponents. 

In a report attached to Tuesday’s meeting, Carvalho cautioned that the the appeals court “limited its decision” to San Francisco only – a caveat that Carvalho says leaves the law “not clearly settled” when it comes to charter cities like Santa Ana.

Penaloza called it a “disaster” waiting to happen – one which he wouldn’t approve funding for by the time the new budget comes around.

“You will not have funding to protect this litigation,” he said to the city attorney and clerk during the meeting. “I can tell you right now, you will not.”

Councilmember Vazquez said that for too long, undocumented residents have been left out of deciding who sits on their City Council.

“A government that’s accountable to everybody,” he said. “Who are we afraid of?”


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