You may have heard that there’s an election on. And yes, this is an election post. But this is a not a post about Trump vs. Clinton. Instead, it’s a post about local politics – and San Francisco’s chance to push back against the politics of exclusion and xenophobia that have helped to shape this election cycle. Welcome to California, a state that doubles-down on direct democracy.
This Tuesday, the state’s voters will decide whether to repeal the death penalty, legalise marijuana, require porn stars to wear condoms… and 13 other measures. And in San Francisco, there are 25 city-wide propositions to consider, A to X (with RR for good measure): covering every issue from soda taxes to who should pay for urban tree pruning.
It’s easy to critique this as an excess of democracy, an exercise in NIMBYism and political posturing by ambitious supervisors. Do voters really need to decide on the minimum number of competing proposals required before an affordable housing project can be approved (Prop P)? Are the voters best-qualified to determine whether the police department should have a neighbourhood crime unit (Prop R)? And it’s important to recognize that an appearance of town-hall democracy can mask big business lobbying and eccentric millionaires’ whims: ads are full of claims and counter-claims about conspiracies to defraud the people. Meanwhile, back in the UK the Daily Mail has reminded us this week that democracy lies close to hysterical demagoguery and the pointing of fingers at “enemies of the people”. Yet for all its imperfections, I can’t help feeling that there is something beautiful about this California commitment to letting citizens decide the shape of their local communities.
But of course, I’m just a spectator. I cannot vote. I’m not an American citizen.
And yet I am – increasingly – a member of this city’s community. And I’m also the mother of a (little) citizen. Which is why I hope that on Tuesday November 8, San Francisco’s voters approve Proposition N. This ballot measure would let parents like me – non-citizens living in the San Francisco Unified School District – to vote for members of the Board of Education. It’s this Board of Education who approves the curriculum, sets education goals and standards, and agrees the district budget for schools across San Francisco.
The idea that parents should have a voice in shaping their children’s education is obvious. Who would disagree? And under this measure, no one loses. It’s about enfranchisement, not disenfranchisement. Citizens – whether parents or not – would still be able to vote in these elections. Yet in a city where 1 in 3 residents is foreign-born – and it’s estimated that at least every third child in a public school has at least one immigrant parent – to insist that citizenship is the only means to judge who should choose the Board of Education is surely flawed. Allowing immigrant parents to participate in shaping the City’s education policy would encouraging their engagement, building and help improve the outcomes for San Francisco’s next generation of citizens – their American children. It’s hoped that in particular the measure might help to improve Latino levels of school attainment, and to reverse some of the segregation between different communities within the city.
Proposition N is not expensive, not permanent – and it’s not even that radical. A yes vote on Tuesday would authorize a 5-year trial initiative, at a cost of $160,000. Prohibitions on immigrants voting in federal elections were only definitively introduced in the 1920s, and more recently cities and towns in New York, Illinois, Maryland and Massachusetts have passed similar laws.
Perhaps – especially if you don’t live in San Francisco – you are wondering why you should care. This is small stuff; local politics; minutiae. Yet if the tangible effect of passing this measure is likely to be tiny, its potential symbolic resonance is enormous. Because this measure is not just about the Board of Education. It is also about immigration, and it is about the politics of welcome.
For on Tuesday – even if Clinton wins – nearly 50% of U.S. voters will have cast their ballots for a man who plans to build a wall to keep out Mexicans, and to subject Muslims to “extreme vetting” before they can enter the country. A man whose words have shown him to be a racist and a xenophobe and a bigot. And as unhappy as it makes me it is important to acknowledge that a large part of Donald Trump’s support exists because – and not in spite – of his position on immigration, and his determination to kick out and keep out poor migrants. Our politicians are not aberrations. They are of our own making. Trump reflects an America that many Americans want: one which does not welcome strangers. A country which is closed to newcomers.
But I am also sure that is not the San Francisco that most San Franciscans want. And– small as the measure is – voting yes on Proposition N offers a chance to make that clear. To advance an alternative, inclusive vision of what community can look like. To make immigrants — immigrants like me – feel welcome, and to offer us a tangible means of helping to shape a small part of the city’s future.
Whatever happens on Tuesday, the past months have offered too many uncomfortable reminders of prejudice and fear, not just in the US but across Europe too. If Trump loses, his brand of hatred will not disappear with him. There is a long struggle for a more open society ahead of us. And in dark times, when the worst are full of passionate intensity, it is often hard to see how to take positive, meaningful action. But Proposition N offers city voters this chance. It’s a small, experimental measure, but inclusion has to start in the neighbourhoods.
So if you are eligible to vote for it, please vote Yes for Proposition N on Tuesday. Not just for us immigrants, nor for our children – but also as a statement about the kind of society you want to belong to.