The city of San Francisco, California swore in the first non-citizen member of its Elections Commission on Wednesday, granting new commissioner Kelly Wong, originally from Hong Kong, a role in overseeing the city’s elections despite not having the ability to legally vote herself.

Wong, a self-described immigrant rights activist, came to the United States in 2019 to pursue a graduate degree. The following year, a voter-approved measure in San Francisco eliminated the citizenship requirement for serving on city boards, commissions, and advisory bodies, allowing Wong to quickly set her sights on public office. According to local outlet KQED, Wong’s appointment was unanimously approved by the members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Her swearing-in at San Francisco City Hall last week was presided over by Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin and drew a crowd of several dozen people.

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“There are always voices inside my head. Like, ‘You can’t do it. You’re not competent. You’re an immigrant. This is not your country,’” Wong told KQED prior to the ceremony, addressing her doubts about seeking the position. “[But] that’s not true. If I can do it, you can do it.”

Wong also delivered her victory speech in Cantonese, highlighting her goal of getting non-English-speaking immigrant communities involved in politics.

(A computer-generated English dub of Wong’s speech can be found here.)

“I’ve seen how language and cultural barriers prevent immigrants with limited English proficiency from fully exercising their right to vote,” Wong stated in her interview with KQED. “Is there a way to do voter outreach that is not just about translation but can touch on political education while maintaining neutrality and impartiality in elections?”

“Even though I’m fluent in English, I still encounter challenges in navigating a new system, let alone participating in political conversation and activities,” she continued, commenting on the lack of an equivalent term for “reparations” in Cantonese and Mandarin.

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According to Wong’s LinkedIn page, she previously worked as an immigrant rights advocate with civil rights group Chinese for Affirmative Action, and before that as an intern at the UN Refugee Agency to “assist in Refugee Status Determination process and preparation of resettlement cases to the US.”

Since San Francisco’s Election Commissioners are unpaid, Wong will continue to work with the Affirmative Action group to encourage noncitizens and immigrants to “become a committee member to influence politics.”

The Federal Election Commission has established guidance that explicitly prohibits “foreign nationals from directing, dictating, controlling, or directly or indirectly participating in the decision-making process of any person…with regard to any election-related activities,” but has not commented specifically on Wong’s appointment.

San Francisco also voted in 2016 to allow foreign nationals and noncitizens to vote in school board elections provided they had a child enrolled in the district.

Connor Walcott is a staff writer for Follow Connor on X and look for him on VT’s “The Unusual Suspects.”

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