Why Did Prop. D Fail?

Campaign worker on Election Day

In the months leading up to the November 2 election, city employees rallied against Prop B, gospel choirs condemned the Sit/Lie measure, and signs for Prop. G urged voters to “Fix Muni Now.” But no such buzz surrounded Prop. D, the ballot measure to give non-citizen residents the right to vote in school board elections.

In the end, the measure lost 54 to 46 percent. A similar measure in 2004 lost by a much tighter 51 to 49 percent.

“It’s a disappointment for the education system and for immigrant parents,” said Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, Prop. D’s main backer. One out of three children in the city’s schools has an immigrant parent.

In the days after the election, political officials and analysts have offered different explanations of why the initiative never took off, including fear of a divisive issue, a lack of money, and legal misconceptions about the proposition.

District 9 Supervisor David Campos, who was not running for reelection this year, said the main challenge was the number of ballot issues.

As a result, “many propositions get lost,” he said.

But the nature of the proposition might also have influenced public engagement, Campos believes.

“It’s hard to run a campaign on something like this, because immigration is a heated topic.”

Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which endorsed Prop. D, agreed.

“There was a national trend that was deep in this election for folks to be shy about immigration issues. There were many political advisors who gave advice to avoid the issue.”

Chiu also cited a “national anti-immigration sentiment” as one of the factors contributing to Prop. D’s defeat.

Locally, the perception of the measure’s legality was “misguided and incorrect,” Chiu said.

The California Constitution does not exclude immigrant voting, but “that message was difficult to get out…many voters weren’t educated about the constitutionality of the measure.”

One reason for that may have been a lack of information. Several Mission residents said they never received Prop. D mailings. And while most major candidates and organizations supported the measure nominally, they failed to actively include it in their campaigns.

Dennis Kelly, president of United Educators for San Francisco, a union representing teachers and other school workers, said that no on Prop. B, which required city workers to contribute more to their pension and health care costs, was the union’s top priority. Yes on Prop. D was its second.

On October 1, the union’s Committee on Public Education donated $1,500 to the Prop. D campaign. Publicly, however, Prop. D was not one of the six election endorsements listed on the union’s home page.

The measure’s ties to the immigration issue were not of concern to the union, according to Kelly.

However, he noted that other groups had expressed apprehension. The San Francisco Labor Council endorsed Prop. D only after the union explained that the measure would benefit legal residents as well as the undocumented.

Other endorsements came from the San Francisco School Board, which unanimously supported the measure.

Board members Kim-Shree Maufas and Hydra Mendoza — both up for reelection — endorsed Prop. D in conversations, but there was no mention of Prop. D support on either of their campaign websites.

“It wasn’t that I didn’t support it,” said Maufas. “It just wasn’t up. It wasn’t there.”

On October 15, someone posted a comment on Mendoza’s Facebook page asking, “Hydra, where do you stand on PROP D? (NONCITIZEN VOTING IN SCHOOL BOARD ELECTIONS),” but received no direct answer.

Mendoza could not be reached for comment.

“They were helpful,” Chiu said of the two board candidates. “At the same time, they were campaigning [for their own reelection], but they carried their weight in trying to get Prop. D on the line.”

Maufas said she was “very disappointed” that the measure didn’t pass, but that she did her part.

She placed her campaign signs near pro-Prop. D signs and attended house parties in favor of the proposition. On October 27, she posted photos of one such house party to an album on her campaign’s Facebook page; in them she’s seen posing with school board member Norman Yee and newly elected member Emily Murase.

Three days later, she posted an album titled My Highly Visible Windows!! with a description that said “What’s in your window this November 2010 campaign season??” Photos include apartment windows filled with signs for her own campaign, against measures L and B, and a few others that include a poster of President Obama. Yes on D was not one of them.

Another school board member running a campaign of her own — for District 6 supervisor  — was Board President Jane Kim. Although there isn’t a mention of the proposition on her campaign’s website, Kim promoted a Prop. D comedy night fundraiser on her Facebook page on October 19, calling the measure “a piece of legislation close to my heart.”

Campos said Chiu hosted similar events to advance the measure, including a rally at the Mission Cultural Center in October.

“In terms of the Mission, there is a fear that people have. Many people don’t want to get involved in public schools,” said Campos before the election. The logic was that allowing immigrant parents to vote in school board elections would improve their participation in the schools. Six out of the city’s 10 struggling schools are in the Mission.

“This measure is so needed to make it clear to parents that you can be involved irrespective of your status.”

Els de Graauw, an assistant professor of political science at the Baruch College of The City University of New York (CUNY), thinks there may be another reason why the proposition didn’t get noticed: It might not have been controversial enough to garner much attention.

“For San Francisco, this isn’t a surprising issue to put up. Had it appeared in Phoenix, Arizona, it would have been a different ballpark,” said de Graauw, who received her Ph.D. from UC Berkeley and studied the role of immigrant organizations in advocating for immigrant-friendly policies in San Francisco.

De Graauw’s colleague Ron Hayduk echoed the sentiment.

“The strong and virulent opposition from 2004 didn’t manifest” itself this time around, said Hayduk, a professor of political science at CUNY who followed Prop. D closely.

With less opposition, Prop. D “wasn’t on our radar screens and it was harder to gain traction.”

“That it failed in a liberal, progressive city raises concerns” about the campaign for the measure, Saenz said.

In the end, there wasn’t much of a campaign.

Finances were also minimal: From its introduction in July of this year to October 16, the Yes on Prop. D campaign raised just $14,415.

In the final days of the campaign, however, donations brought the total to $38,159, according to Dana Rivera, Prop. D’s campaign treasurer.

The contributions may have come too late.

In a campaign letter, Chiu asked for donations: “Many voters don’t even know Prop. D is on the November ballot. Your donation will help us educate and inform voters on how Prop. D will improve our education system in San Francisco.”

“We tried to promote it,” said Campos. “We can’t have quality schools without parent involvement.”

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3 Comments

  1. Colin V. Gallagher

    That Proposition D if passed, would be unconstitutional is not a “legal misconception”. The measure as drafted would have extended voting rights only to noncitizen parents of children in the SFUSD. All other noncitizen residents would have been denied voting rights, even noncitizen residents paying property taxes to the SFUSD. In Kelly v. Union Free School district, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that a local government can’t limit voting rights in school board elections to citizen parents only. Any noncitizen resident of SF would have had the right to sue the city to invalidate Proposition B, and obtain an award of attorneys fees, under the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. The voters demonstrated common sense on this issue even without any organized campaign against Prop. D.

  2. K. Coll

    If the concern were truly equal protection for the voting rights of noncitizens without children in public schools, the solution would be to follow the practice in our a among 63+ other nations, where local residents are allowed to vote municipal elections regardless of citizenship. There is published legal scholarship supporting the constitutionality of measures like Prop. D in California. Federal constitutionality has never been questioned. The City Attorney supported and was ready to defend Prop D against legal challenges. The previous comment is important, however, as an example of something the article doesn’t cover: how some opponents raised red herring arguments in order to deflect attention from the anti-immigrant and pro-taxation-without-representation nature of their position.

  3. Matie

    It failed because it is unAmerican to allow people from other countries to come here illegally and then vote. Give me a break.

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