NALEO files amicus brief on Voting Rights Act

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In expectation of the Supreme court case on the Voting Rights Act, national Latino organizations filed an amicus brief to protect voting rights. Picture: Arturo Vargas, executive director of NALEO Educational Fund. (Latinovations)

In the wake of a Supreme Court case that will be re-evaluating the Voting Rights Act of 1965, national Hispanic organizations filed an amicus brief advocating on behalf of a decades long provision that the groups signal protects the voting rights of Latinos.

The statute being challenged in Shelby County vs. Holder is section 5, which requires certain jurisdictions who have held a history of discrimination, to seek pre-clearance from the federal government before enacting any challenges to the state’s voting laws.

Detrimental impact in future elections

When the Voting Rights Act was enacted, nine states in the south were targeted as areas that needed to seek preclearance. Yet, the plaintiff, Shelby County, Ala., argues that Alabama should no longer be held under the same rules considering that the state does not engage in voter discrimination. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in a little more than three weeks on February 27.

Latino organizations like the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund joined in filing the brief among 21 other groups because they believe that without section 5 it will have a detrimental impact in future elections.

“The right to vote is one of the most precious rights afforded to us by the U.S. Constitution,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund, which also joined in filing an amicus brief.

“Section 5 ensures that the U.S. Department of Justice has the tools necessary to help protect this right and promote equal access to the political process for Latino voters and all Americans,” Vargas stated.

Last November, a record number of Latinos turned out to vote, yet NALEO also cautioned in a policy paper that more than “one million Latino voters were at risk of being negatively affected in 2012 and beyond by restrictive voting laws at the state level.”

In the amicus brief, the organizations argue that discrimination against Latinos still persists and section 5 would be detrimental to such rights. In 2006, when Congress evaluated the need to reauthorize such protections, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) claimed through evidence submitted to Congress that when “Latino voters can exercise political power by electing their preferred candidate” at that point jurisdictions responded with measures perceived as discriminatory.

Intimidation and harassment of Latino voters

In some of the jurisdictions like Texas, Georgia, and Alabama, Congress received evidence of continued intimidation and harassment of Latino voters, according to the brief. “Federal observers reported: “instances in which language minority voters fell victim to the harassment and intimidation of polling officials.”

The brief also argues that there were many accounts of “officials imposing heightened identification burdens on Latino voters” and other jurisdictions were asking for additional documentation from voters with Spanish surnames. That also includes vote purge rolls in states such as Florida.

The amicus brief was filed in conjunction with other national Latino organizations such as the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF), Latino Justice PRLDEF, National Council of La Raza, and Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, including others that have been involved in advocating during the 1970s and 1980s to expand the Voting Rights Act to address discrimination.

During testimony submitted in December of last year, Nina Perales, MALDEF Vice President of Litigation, testified before the United States Senate Judiciary Committee acknowledging that while Latino voting participation has increased, there are still challenges the community faces throughout the voting process.

States must play fair with new voters

“Instead of welcoming new Latino voters into the electorate, some states have reacted to demographic change by restricting their voter rolls and targeting new voters for burdensome paperwork requirements and unjustified investigations,” stated Perales in testimony submitted to Congress. “Most of these discriminatory practices have been blocked in court, sending a strong message to states that they must play fair with new voters.”

The organizations joins dozens of other legal and civil rights organizations who have filed amicus briefs.

Yet, the argument persists that it should be struck down because proof that there is defiance when the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, is no longer valid in such jurisdictions such as Shelby, County. The plaintiff also claims that Congress did not have the constitutional authority in 2006 to reauthorize section 5.

In addition, critics indicate that Congress made no changes to the list of jurisdictions covered by Section 5. Instead, when it was reauthorized it relied data based on historical practices and elections “held decades ago,” meaning it was outdated. In May, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia struck down the challenge filed by Shelby County.

After 1975, section 5 extended pre clearance protections to Latino voters in Texas, Arizona, and parts of California, Florida and New York. The provision requires jurisdictions in 16 fully or partially covered states to submit proposed changes in voting procedures to the U.S. Department of Justice or a federal district court in D.C. before it goes into effect.

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