Note To Media: The Voting Rights Act Challenge Is Not Just Black And White
Blog ››› ››› SERGIO MUNOZ
The media should be aware of the Voting Rights Act's historic importance for all communities of color, particularly the "awakened" Latino vote, and not simply report that it is a black and white issue of importance only to African-Americans. While a significant number of amicus (friend of the court) briefs filed in Shelby County v. Holder - the Voting Rights Act challenge that the Supreme Court will hear February 27 - focus on the struggle for African-Americans' right to vote, a diverse range of civil rights advocates have joined the effort to uphold the law.
Hispanic civil rights advocates - in addition to advocates for Asian Americans and Indian Nations - are briefing the Supreme Court on the continued importance of the Voting Rights Act in the face of well-documented voter suppression against their communities. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requires jurisdictions with a history of voter discrimination to "pre-clear" changes to their election practices with the U.S. Department of Justice or a federal court. Led by a small Alabama county, Southern states are challenging Section 5's constitutionality - arguing, in part, that it unfairly singles them out and is outdated - despite their long history of voter suppression on the basis of race and national origin.
USA Today recently reported on the pushback against this ahistorical claim, noting that in response to Shelby County's attempt to strike down "the heart" of the Voting Rights Act, long-time African-American participants in the struggle for the right to vote in Alabama filed multiple amicus briefs in support of the law. USA Today did not, however, report the perspectives of other voters of color, despite the fact that the Southern and Southwestern Latino population has not only skyrocketed, but has also been the victim of extensive state-sponsored discrimination.
Neglecting to describe the long-standing importance of Section 5 to other communities of color - and to citizens of limited English proficiency since 1975 - not only misses an important part of civil rights history, it also fails to recognize why the Voting Rights Act is still relevant. Last election cycle, voting rights experts at the Advancement Project warned that, if unchecked by civil rights law, state voter suppression efforts would take a toll on Latino voters:
An estimated 10 million Latino voters could be adversely affected by newly erected barriers to voting enacted by legislatures and elected leaders in more than 20 states, according to an Advancement Project study released Monday.
A flood of new state-level voting restrictions, including purges of alleged non-citizens (effective in 16 states), requirements to prove citizenship (effective in three states), and strict photo ID laws (effective in nine states), have a disproportionate effect on Latino voters and other citizens of color, according to the study, Segregating American Citizenship: Latino Voter Disenfranchisement in 2012. In total, 23 states have adopted the policies, which have the disproportionate effect of obstructing the ability of eligible Latino voters throughout the country to cast their ballots.
"The pattern is unmistakable. State after state has moved to obstruct the ability of millions of Latino citizens to participate in our democracy," said Advancement Project Co-Director Judith Browne Dianis. "This concerted effort targeting Latinos and other voters of color not only undermines the principles of our constitution's guarantee of equal protection, but also impairs the fundamental American value of ensuring all citizens have an equal voice."
Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act did eventually halt many of these retrogressive attempts at voter suppression, most notably legislative attempts to require government-issued photo voter ID, a "solution" to the "virtually non-existent" problem of in-person voter fraud. With the high level of Latino voter mobilization, voter protection helped the emergence of the Hispanic vote. Yet despite this new clout, eligible Latinos still had lower voter turnout than African-Americans and whites. A recent New York Times article noted that in certain states where voter suppression was most blatant, such as Florida, voter participation of Latinos was severely affected.
With the media's recognition of the new voting power of the Latino electorate, it is important that coverage of the possible gutting of the Voting Rights Act note its significance to all voters of color. For example, as described in the amicus brief of 22 leading national Latino organizations, Texas is a veritable case study in the importance of Section 5 to Latino voters:
"In the last four decades, Texas has found itself in court every redistricting cycle, and each time it has lost." On the eve of the 2006 reauthorization, [a federal court] found the State's 2003 congressional redistricting plan bore "the mark of intentional discrimination." Despite this history, in 2011, Texas enacted yet another series of intentionally discriminatory redistricting plans. These actions underscore the critical importance that Section 5 continues to play today.
Between 2000 and 2010, the population of Texas increased by over four million people, 65% of whom were Latinos. This growth required Texas to redraw its electoral districts for the U.S. Congress, State Senate, and State House of Representatives. On July 19, 2011, Texas filed suit in [federal court] to preclear its enacted plans pursuant to Section 5 of the VRA.
Following a trial in Texas's preclearance action, the [court] found overwhelming evidence of intentional race-based discrimination, a finding in keeping with "Texas's history of failures to comply with the VRA."
[The court] refused to preclear Texas's redistricting plans, and as a result those plans were never allowed to shape the 2012 election results...This would not have been possible without Section 5. Absent preclearance requirements, Texas's discriminatory plans likely would have been used in the 2012 elections...Had Section 5 not been available to block the implementation of Texas's intentionally discriminatory redistricting, the discriminatory results of an election designed to disenfranchise Latino voters would have embedded incumbents and locked in that discrimination for years.