Opinion

Giving Latino Voters the Protections They Deserve

In the absence of a modern Voting Rights Act, states and localities are trying to put limits on Latino political power.

Arturo Vargas is the executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials
National Journal
Arturo Vargas
March 12, 2014, 5:30 a.m.

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.

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