Latinos Urge Court To Uphold Voting Rights Act Provision

PHOTO: A Spanish-language sign tells voters where to cast their ballots.

Jasleen_Kaur/Flickr

A group of national Hispanic organizations is objecting to the possible elimination of part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that they say protects minorities.

The provision requires places with a history of discrimination, most of them in the south, to get clearance from the Justice Department or a federal district court in Washington, D.C. before they alter voting laws. It was expanded in the mid-1970s to include heavily Latino areas in Texas, Arizona, California, Florida and New York.

The Supreme Court will hear the case, Shelby County vs. Holder, in late February, and nearly two-dozen Latino groups have joined together to file an amicus brief that urges the court to keep the provision in place. They argue that its removal could harm the fairness of future elections.

They say that voters who don't speak English as a first language are intimidated, and that voter-roll purges have unfairly targeted minorities.

But some impacted states and counties, such as plaintiff Shelby County, Alabama, argue that the provision is outdated and unnecessary. They contend that they are being unfairly judged based on discrimination that took place decades ago, and that the provision is an overreach of federal power.

And according to the SCOTUS Blog, the Supreme Court is also wary of the need for the law.

"But the Supreme Court has become one of the skeptics about the constitutionality of the law, partly because of the very fact that the law has been so successful," reads an explanation of the case on the blog. "'Things have changed in the South,' the Court commented in 2009. And, at that time, it pondered striking down the key part of the 1965 law — Section 5 — on the theory that 'the evil that Section 5 is meant to address may no longer be concentrated' in the states, counties, and cities that must obey that section. There are nine of those states, plus local governments in seven other states. They are required to get permission in Washington before they may change any law dealing with voting — no matter how trivial the change. The Court chose at that time to leave the law as is, but hinted strongly that Congress should update it."

Lawmakers haven't amended it, and according to the National Association for Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund, one of the organizations that filed the brief, that's a good thing.

"Experiences in the last two years, with regard to redistricting and preparations for the 2012 election, demonstrate that discrimination against Latinos is alive and well in the United States," NALEO Executive Director Arturo Vargas said.

He cited recent attempts at redistricting in Texas, and voter ID laws that disadvantage minorities.

According to the brief, "In 2004, San Antonio used the historically prevalent intimidation tactic of stationing police officers outside polling sites in a largely Latino area of the city."

It continued, "In 2002, DOJ objected to Arizona's State House redistricting plan, because it would have "diminished the districts where Hispanics could elect their candidate of choice from eight districts to five districts," and would have 'made it so the Hispanic population, which constituted over 25 percent of the state's population, would only have been able to elect 16 percent of the state's congressional delegation.'"

Vargas thinks discrimination at the state level is growing.

"What we have seen is an increase in laws at the state level that target the immigrant status of individuals," Vargas said, "and the problem is the way it's applied. People will typically apply those laws upon people they perceive to be foreigners."

Latino voters made up a record 10 percent of the electorate in the November election, and that number is likely to grow. More than 70 percent cast ballots for President Obama, while only about 27 percent voted for Republican candidate Mitt Romney.

Since the election, the Republican Party has struggled with how to attract more Latinos. Hispanic Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) has gained widespread attention as a driving force behind a Senate immigration-reform framework, and he will also deliver the Republican response to Obama's State of the Union address. But aside from Rubio and a handful of other conservative Hispanic lawmakers, the Republican Party is comprised mostly of older, white men. That demographic is shrinking, however. Latinos and other minorities represent a larger share of the electorate each year.

Proponents of the provision say that some in the Republican Party want to deter Latino voters as a way of limiting the number of Democratic votes instead of working to woo more Hispanics to a conservative agenda.

"The case for why it's necessary was made so blatant in the past two years," Vargas said, "that I would say the Supreme Court would have to be truly blind to justice here if it decides that Section 5 is no longer required."

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