Proposed Voting Rights Fix May Leave Latinos Vulnerable at Polls

Image: English-Spanish Signs Front Election Center In Texas

A bilingual sign stands outside a polling center at a public library ahead of local elections on April 28, 2013 in Austin, Texas. John Moore / Getty Images

On Election Day 2012, Gabriel Polanco was a teenager excited to be voting for the first time in Phoenix, his hometown. After waiting in a long line at his local polling place, he was told by a poll worker that his name was not on the list of registered voters. He was given a provisional ballot instead.

Then another poll worker told him that he could not use a provisional ballot either. “She told me, “You are a person in limbo,” said Polanco, now 20 years-old and in college. “Her exact words to me were: You cannot vote. Can you please leave? I do not want you to cause a scene.”

Polanco learned that, because he had recently moved, he needed to update his address with the Department of Motor Vehicles. “So I walked a mile to the DMV, waited in their lines, took a new photo, got all my info updated, and walked back to the polling place,” he said. “They still would not let me vote, or give me an absentee ballot.” Polanco also presented his state Voter ID card, without success.

It took nearly a full day of waiting in lines, arguing and pleading with poll workers, and the attention of a local TV news crew before Polanco was able to cast his vote using a provisional ballot.

“I went to the polling place at around 11:20 a.m.,” he said. “I did not vote until 6:40 p.m.”

Confusion and irregularities at the ballot box are a serious concern for Latino advocacy organizations. Latino experts fear the fragile nature of the Hispanic vote may mean that continued experiences like Polanco's could affect turnout, particularly now that the historic voting protections have been changed and, so far, solutions in Congress don't go as far as hoped.

Until recently, the federal government monitored states like Arizona -- which has the country’s fifth-largest Hispanic eligible voter population -- that had a demonstrated history of racial discrimination at the polls. Arizona was one of nine states, along with other jurisdictions, required by Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, to get federal approval before making changes to its voting laws. But in 2013, the Supreme Court invalidated key parts of the Voting Rights Act, ruling in Shelby County v. Holder that they were based on outdated data.

In response, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has introduced legislation that would strengthen the Voting Rights Act. Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., John Conyers, Jr., D-Mich. and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., have introduced the Voting Rights Amendment of 2014.

But under their plan, only four states – Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi – would initially be subject to federal supervision.

“The good (news) is that states like Texas with a notorious history with voting violations are covered. The bad is that a state like Arizona is not,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO).

The bill allows more jurisdictions to be added if a court finds evidence of voting discrimination against a minority group. It would require that all states and localities provide public notice of any redistricting or changes to voting laws within 180 days of a federal election, and would make it easier to seek an injunction against a potentially discriminatory voting law.

Still, Latino lawmakers and policy experts raised concerns about the absence of a “known practices” clause, which would allow the government to monitor states or localities. Without it, many Latinos might not have voting rights protections, said Angelo Falcón, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy.

“Look at Latinos, and Asian-Americans also, we are all over the country,” Falcón said.

“But this fix is a political compromise,” he said, “and so the fact that we could get these changes is important.”

The proposed legislation exempts certain state voter ID laws, which have been shown to disproportionately affect Hispanic and other minority voters. Matt Barreto, professor of political science at the University of Washington and a co-founder of the polling firm Latino Decisions, noted that his research in a lawsuit over Pennsylvania’s Voter ID laws turned up problems with such laws.

“We found that about 18 percent of eligible Latino voters lacked the necessary identification to vote,” he said. “Not only that, but we found that Latinos also tended to lack the underlying documents necessary to obtain a voter ID, such as a birth certificate."

Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Texas, said he is optimistic about the proposal getting congressional approval and supports it. “Before, people didn’t like Congress but they liked their congressman. Now people don’t like anyone in Congress,” he said. “The underlying message is that people are fed up with Congress doing nothing; it is an incentivizing force to get this done. The members understand that people are paying attention.”

Some conservative policy experts question the need for a fix to the Voting Rights Act. Israel Ortega, Strategic Initiatives Manager for the Heritage Foundation, believes people are wary of giving more power to the federal government. He said that a new version of the act could be politicized, and that a better approach to the problem of minority turnout would be to focus on civic engagement.

“Sometimes we pass law after law, hoping things will turn out better, but I don’t see the need for this one right now,” he said. “A better thing to do would be to empower people to come out to vote, not to empower the federal government and the Department of Justice," Ortega said.

Linda Chavez, Chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity, said “the world has changed” since the original Voting Rights Act was passed. “The Supreme Court decided the Shelby case correctly,” Chavez said. In her view, a new Voting Rights Act would be "anachronistic”.

In Phoenix, Polanco said his voting hassle left him disillusioned, despite a background of activism in student and Latino causes and realatives who were once undocumented.

So, will he vote in the 2014 midterm elections?

“Maybe, leaning towards probably,” he said, then paused. “No, to be honest, that is not who my parents raised me to be. I am definitely going to vote.”

“Voting is a precious thing in my family," he said. "They do not take it lightly.”