Santa Ana could give non-citizens a vote in local elections

non citizen voting rights
An estimated 20% of Asian residents and about 40% of Santa Ana Latinos are not naturalized. Photo by Lizeth Martinez / el Don

Reporting by Lucero Garcia and Lizeth Martinez 

An estimated one in four Santa Ana residents could cast a ballot in local elections for the first time if non-citizen voting is approved next fall. 

Santa Ana City Council approved a ballot measure 4-3 on Sept. 19 to let residents decide if people who are undocumented, permanent residents, green card holders, asylum seekers and refugees should vote in municipal elections.  

If passed in November 2024, Santa Ana will be the first city in Southern California to allow non-citizen voting. 

Some residents are concerned that the current proposal doesn’t go far enough. The ballot resolution would be an advisory measure that says the city council “should” implement its directives. It does not mandate any changes to the city charter. 

“What we are asking is for the language to say, ‘The Santa Ana city council shall implement noncitizen voting,’” said Carlos Perea, a native of Mexico and a member of the community coalition Santa Ana Families For Fair Elections.

Critics say there are a lot of unknowns. Mayor Valeria Amezcua and councilmembers Phil Bacerra and David Penaloza voted against the proposal, saying it can affect non-citizens who are trying to become naturalized citizens.

The Application for Naturalization asks “Have you ever voted in a local, state or federal election?” If a non-citizen legally voted in a local election they would need to check “yes.” 

“One of the biggest unknowns is the potential harm this can do to one’s immigration status or case if one chooses to vote in a U.S election. Due to the fact under federal law, only U.S Citizens currently have the right to vote,” Penaloza said during the Sept. 19 council meeting.

Penaloza did not respond to an interview request and Amezcua and Bacerra declined to be interviewed.

UndocuScholars Program Counselor Dahiana Crabill is concerned for the 132 SAC students that she works with and encourages scrutiny. 

“There’s so many unknowns here, it’s a lot, it’s so much heavier than a yes or no question. If I have jeopardized my ability to become a US citizen by voting in my state election I would say no,” said Crabill.

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Perea, Vu and other champions of non-citizen voting in Santa Ana are looking to San Francisco and other municipalities that have approved non-citizen voting for guidance.

In San Francisco, advocates say non-citizens who voted can request a letter from the Department of Elections which is signed, dated and would have the signature of the director of the Department of Elections. The letter explains that the person voted under the color of law legally and lawfully based on the local charter.

“As a part of our advocacy we had asked that the Department of Elections be mandated to produce a right-to-vote letter,” said Anette Wong, Managing Director of Programs for Chinese for Affirmative Action who was one of many CAA members who advocated for non-citizen voting in San Francisco.

Similar to San Francisco, Santa Ana plans on modeling after the right-to-vote letter to give to non-citizen voters. 

If voters approve the ballot resolution next November, it will still be a two-to-three-year process before non-citizens are able to have their votes counted. Because Santa Ana uses the OC Registrar to manage its elections, a separate registrar office needs to be set up in order to accommodate non-citizen voting. 

“Santa Ana is so unique in the sense that we are trailblazers, there is a lot of activism. It comes from the bottom, it comes from the community,” said Crabill. “Representation matters and it should be a right.” 

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