When the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in 2013, it invalidated one of the most important and successful civil rights laws of the past 50 years. Civil Rights leaders fought in the 1960s to afford not just African Americans, but all Americans the right to vote without discrimination. When the court ruled that Section 4 was unconstitutional, African Americans and other minority groups, such as the nation’s growing Latino population, lost critical protections.
Across the country, Latinos already comprise the nation’s second largest population group. Imagine the electoral potential if all 23.5 million Latino citizens of voting-age were registered and voted. Latinos have the ability to be a decisive force in state and local elections across the nation.
It is precisely because of this potential that some states, counties, and towns have unfairly targeted Latino voters by changing voting practices and policies, district lines, and even voting times in the months since the Supreme Court’s decision.
Just recently in Pasadena, Texas, where Latinos make up about one-third of voters, city officials altered the makeup of the city council. Pasadena’s governing body was transformed from one made up of eight separate city council districts each representing a distinct part of the city and group of voters, to one with six separate districts and two city-wide seats.
The move effectively reduced Latino voting power in city council elections. At-large elections typically dilute Latino voting influence because Latino voters often comprise a far smaller group of voters in a city-wide race than they would in a single district. By converting two single-member city council districts into city-wide seats for which candidates must compete for voters all over town, Pasadena effectively turned back the clock on Latino voter influence. The city did so with impunity.
Make no mistake—minority voting rights around the country are imperiled. That’s why all voters, including Latinos, deserve a modern, effective VRA.
One of the goals of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) is to strengthen American democracy by promoting the full participation of Latinos in civic life. And one of the best ways to do this is to ensure that all citizens are given free and fair access to the ballot box.
In January, a bipartisan group in Congress introduced a bill that would modernize the VRA to make it more relevant, flexible, and effective. NALEO supports this process, because this bill would institute commonsense safeguards to ensure that all U.S. citizens, regardless of race or language, are able to fully exercise their fundamental right to participate in elections. The bill includes enhanced transparency provisions so that subtle changes with the potential to significantly affect voters no longer fly below the radar. This includes, for example, changes in the number of poll workers and other voting resources assigned to particular precincts, a likely contributing factor to long lines encountered by Latino voters during the 2012 elections.
This is a critical step in ensuring that America’s Latino population is able to enjoy the constitutional right to vote — now and in the years to come. Still, there is room for improvement. We are hopeful that, through a deliberative and open bipartisan process, additional protections for Latinos and other minority voters will be included. Groups like NALEO would like to see the necessary committees consider the issue soon, a critical step before a bill could go to the House or Senate floor for a vote.
It’s essential that we have the tools provided by a modern, effective VRA to address the current discriminatory practices that threaten the rights of Latinos and others to vote and to shape this country. Protecting the right to vote isn’t a partisan issue and it isn’t about who wins or loses elections. It’s about common sense steps that will guard the right of everyone to vote, no matter their race, where they live, or what language they speak.
Let’s ensure the promise of America’s democracy remains a reality for all.
Arturo Vargas is the Executive Director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), the leadership organization of the nation’s more than 6,000 Latino elected and appointed officials.