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Latino Communities on the Front Lines of Voter Suppression

New restrictive state laws are aimed at suppressing Latino votes and depriving them of fair representation — Arizona and Texas provide prime examples.

January 14, 2022

Latino polit­ical parti­cip­a­tion in the United States is on the rise, but a wave of voting restric­tions and other harm­ful laws sweep­ing through the states is jeop­ard­iz­ing Latino polit­ical power, partic­u­larly in states like Arizona and Texas.

Fortu­nately, the Free­dom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act would counter many of the worst efforts to suppress the vote of communit­ies of color. The bill would set baseline national stand­ards to protect voting rights and undo harm­ful Supreme Court decisions, ensur­ing that the voices of all Amer­ic­ans are heard.

As Pres­id­ent Biden said in his address from Geor­gia this week, it is crit­ical that the Senate act without delay. “This is the moment to decide. To defend our elec­tions. To defend our demo­cracy.”

Racist efforts to suppress Latino polit­ical power in the United States are noth­ing new, espe­cially in states with large Latino popu­la­tions. For over 60 years, for example, Arizona law required voters to pass an English liter­acy test in order to register to vote. The authors of the 1909 law stated their inten­tion plainly: to block the “ignor­ant Mexican vote.” Whites-only primar­ies, designed to suppress the Black vote in South­ern states, were imple­men­ted in Texas in 1923 to bar Lati­nos from parti­cip­a­tion in crucial primary elec­tions. More recently, despite some legal advances, intim­id­a­tion, harass­ment, oner­ous proof-of-citizen­ship require­ments, and other efforts to suppress the Latino vote have persisted.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was an essen­tial step towards remedy­ing such voter suppres­sion. The law prohib­its discrim­in­a­tion against racial and ethnic minor­it­ies in access to the vote and was amended in 1975 to protect Span­ish-speak­ing popu­la­tions and other language minor­it­ies. Until 2013, it also required states and local­it­ies with a history of racial discrim­in­a­tion in voting to obtain federal approval for changes to voting laws, a process known as “preclear­ance.” But that year, the Supreme Court gutted the preclear­ance power in Shelby County v. Holder. And last year, the Court further weakened the Voting Rights Act when it upheld two discrim­in­at­ory Arizona voting policies — which dispro­por­tion­ately burden Lati­nos — in Brnovich v. DNC.

These decisions have contrib­uted to a resur­gence in efforts to suppress the votes of Lati­nos and other people of color as their popu­la­tion numbers grow. States have passed hundreds of restrict­ive voting laws that shortened early voting peri­ods, closed polling places, estab­lished aggress­ive voter roll purges, and more.

Today, we are at a crisis point. Former Pres­id­ent Trump made demon­iz­ing Lati­nos a cent­ral compon­ent of his campaign and spread mali­cious lies, like the false claim that millions of noncit­izens voted illeg­ally. His efforts to sow divi­sion and under­mine Amer­ican elec­tions led to a viol­ent insur­rec­tion at the Capitol and an endur­ing anti­demo­cratic move­ment rooted in white suprem­acy.

State legis­lat­ors have followed this lead, amping up voter suppres­sion efforts. In the past year, 19 states enacted 34 restrict­ive voting laws, with more expec­ted in 2022. Some of the worst laws have been passed in states with grow­ing Latino popu­la­tions, includ­ing Flor­ida, Arizona, and Texas. In Texas, the new law would make it harder for Span­ish speak­ers to get help cast­ing their ballots, estab­lish monthly citizen­ship checks that have consist­ently purged eligible voters from the rolls in error, and ban 24-hour and drive-thru voting (both of which were pandemic-safe altern­at­ives to in-person voting that voters of color relied upon more heav­ily than white voters in 2020).

As part of our current redis­trict­ing cycle, lawmakers across the coun­try are also dilut­ing the power of Latino voters through extreme gerry­man­der­ing. Activ­ists in Arizona have expressed concern that the state’s new maps could limit the voices of Latino and Native voters. Under the Free­dom to Vote Act, Arizon­a’s redis­trict­ing plan would trig­ger the bill’s presump­tion of partisan bias, allow­ing inter­ested parties to chal­lenge the bills in court.

Luck­ily, the major demo­cracy reform bill pending in the Senate can blunt the worst damage. Not only does the Free­dom to Vote Act ban partisan gerry­man­der­ing, it guar­an­tees early and no-excuse mail voting, curbs discrim­in­at­ory voter roll purges, coun­ters long lines at the polls, and much more.

Since states may still try to discrim­in­ate, the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advance­ment Act restores the Voting Rights Act to full force, undo­ing the Supreme Court decisions in Shelby County and Brnovich. These bills have major­ity support — all that stands in their way is the Senate’s 60-vote threshold for defeat­ing a fili­buster. But the fili­buster can be modi­fied, as it has been many times before.

Lati­nos, who accoun­ted for more than half of the coun­try’s popu­la­tion growth over the last decade, deserve to have their votes coun­ted. Their strengthened polit­ical power would mean a govern­ment that better reflects their needs. Congress can help our nation come closer to the ideal — a multiracial demo­cracy where all can parti­cip­ate — by doing whatever it takes to make these essen­tial demo­cracy reforms become law.