Latino groups push for update to Voting Rights Act

McClatchy Washington BureauJune 12, 2014 

— Citing concerns about new state voter-ID laws and voter roll purges, a coalition of Latino organizations on Thursday called on Congress to push ahead with its update of the federal Voting Rights Act.

Speaking in a news conference on the steps of the Supreme Court a year after justices struck down a key component of the federal law, members of three organizations released a report on what they say are potential problems in states with histories of discrimination.

“We were told that this kind of voting discrimination doesn’t exist anymore,” said Luz Weinberg, a city commissioner from Aventura, Fla., who’s a member of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. “They said, `Give us some examples.’ So here are our examples; now it’s time for Congress to act.”

The 5-4 Supreme Court decision last June in Shelby County v. Holder threw out a vital provision of the landmark 1965 legislation. That provision required jurisdictions with histories of voter discrimination to get approval from the Justice Department before they change any election practices. The justices invited Congress to set a new formula adapting the law to changing times.

In response, the bipartisan Voting Rights Amendment Act was introduced in January. In the House of Representatives, Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., whose committee holds jurisdiction over the bill, hasn’t scheduled a hearing. In the Senate, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has said he'll hold a hearing on the issue of voting rights.

“Chairman Goodlatte should schedule a hearing on the bill, but he has refused,” said Hector Sanchez, the chairman of the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, a coalition of national Latino organizations. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund also contributed to the report. “If in fact he believes that voting discrimination does not exist, then let’s have that debate.”

In a statement Thursday, Goodlatte responded: “I fully support protecting the voting rights of all Americans. As Congress determines whether additional steps are needed to protect those rights, I will carefully consider legislative proposals addressing the issue.” He hasn’t said whether he'll hold a hearing.

The Voting Rights Act has been used primarily to protect the civil rights of African-Americans. But Thursday’s event highlighted several examples of practices that affect the growing Latino electorate. As of 2012, Latinos made up over a quarter of the voting age populations in Texas and California, and 16 percent in Florida.

Before the court’s ruling last summer, the Voting Rights Act had stopped several potentially discriminating practices, the report said. In 2007, for example, Texas tried to bar candidates who weren’t landowners from running for supervisor of fresh water supply districts. Upon inspection, the Justice Department found that every incumbent supervisor who didn’t own land was Latino, and it didn’t approve the practice, the report said.

Two years later, the report said, the Justice Department stopped Gonzales County, Texas, from reducing the number of bilingual poll workers and removing Spanish-language election procedures that had been in place since the 1970s.

In another Texas example in the wake of the Supreme Court decision, the state has enacted a voter ID law. Critics argue that the law disproportionately targets minorities, including Latinos.

“Now it’s just hunting season on voter protections,” said Weinberg.

Almost 7 million Latino voters live in jurisdictions previously subject to the preapproval requirement, according to the organizations’ report.

“Shelby left us without protection, and Shelby seems to only have emboldened those jurisdictions,” said Rosalind Gold, the senior director of policy at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, referring to the Shelby County v. Holder case.

The report also focuses on Florida’s attempt to purge alleged noncitizens from voting rolls across the state in 2012, a practice initially stopped by the Justice Department but that continued after the Supreme Court decision, the report said. The use of out-of-date Department of Motor Vehicles data became a problem for recently naturalized citizens. More than 60 percent of the Floridians purged from the voter rolls were Latino, according to the Latino officials association.

Voting rights advocates stressed that it was urgent to schedule the hearing for the Voting Rights Amendment Act as soon as possible.

Under the legislation, states with five voting-rights violations within a 15-year period would be subject to federal oversight, as would localities with three violations within the prior 15 years or those with one violation and “persistent, extremely low minority turnout.” The states that would pass that initial threshold are Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.

Justin Levitt, a national voting-rights expert and professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said that while a legislative fix was needed, voting rights advocates were thinking too small.

“A lot of attention is being paid to statewide measures, but the bigger problem is the small local election issues that require great resources to play a kind of whack-a-mole game,” he said.

Email: vbergengruen@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @verambergen.

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