Although the setting for her voting rights speech was a historically black college, presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton’s call for making it easier for Americans to vote has implications for the political involvement of Latinos.
Every year, at least 50,000 Latino youth turn 18. Pew Research Center has projected that Latinos would account for 40 percent of the growth in America’s eligible to vote through 2030 and in that year, some 40 million Latinos would be able to vote.
Speaking at Texas Southern University - established in Houston in 1927 as Colored Junior College to educate blacks - Clinton proposed automatic voter registration for young people when they turn 18, unless they opt out. She also proposed a national standard of no fewer than 20 days of early voting in every state.
Clinton added that she’d push for Congress to pass a bipartisan bill hammered out in the last Congress but never voted on that would restore Voting Rights Act protections from voting discrimination.
“I believe every citizen has the right to vote and I believe we should do everything we can to make it easier for every citizen to vote,” Clinton said.
Although the Supreme Court decision gutting protections against discrimination in the Voting Rights act is often discussed in the context of black voters, the decision has significantly impacted potential Latino voters, said Maria Teresa Kumar, founding president of Voto Latino, a group that works to get young Latinos to vote.
For example, the county that brought the lawsuit that led to the Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights Act, Shelby County, experienced a 297 percent growth in its Latino population during 2000 to 2010.
“Most folks think the Voting Rights Act (challenge) was to disenfranchise blacks,” Kumar said. “When you look at the states that started implementing voting restrictions after the decision – Texas, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina – the voting restrictions paralleled the states with the fastest Latino growth.”
A Texas voter ID law that was rejected by a federal court in Washington, D.C. was deemed racially discriminatory, which Clinton mentioned and used to take a swipe at former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican who announced his presidential bid Thursday.
Since President Barack Obama’s 2012 election, a number of Republican-controlled state legislatures and governors have passed or signed laws instituting restrictions on voting.
Supporters of the restrictions have said they are aimed at curbing fraud, but opponents have tagged them as a response to the coalition of black and brown voters who heavily supported Obama in both elections.
While requirements for specific forms of identification at the polls have gotten the most attention, a slew of other laws have been instituted on voting, including reductions in early voting periods, elimination of election day voter registration, cuts in voting hours, elimination of laws allowing young people to register when they get driver’s licenses (though they could not vote until they turned 18) and more.
“We should be clearing the way for more people to vote, not putting up any roadblock anyone can imagine,” said Clinton, who received an award at the event. The award is named after Barbara Jordan, whose legislation in Congress broadened the Voting Rights Act’s protections to Latinos and other groups.
The Republican Party criticized Clinton's comments saying she was "misleading" and "divisive."
"The vast majority of Americans - including minority voters - support commonsense measures to prevent voter fraud," said Orlando Watson, an RNC spokesman. He said Clinton's home state of New York does not allow early voting while dozens of Republican-led states do. "Her exploitation of the issue underscores why voters find her dishonest and untrustworthy," Watson said.
But Pratt Wiley, the Democratic Party’s national director of voter expansion, said people are kept from registering to vote in other ways. About 60 percent of all Americans are registered to vote when they get their driver’s licenses, through what is known as motor voter laws, Wiley said.
Groups all over the country are asserting that state departments that oversee driver’s licensing are falling down on the job of giving people the opportunity to register to vote by not asking if people want to register, he said. Also, counties are not processing applications when they get them, are slow to do so or are losing applications, Wiley said.
“Voter ID is part of a whole suite of restrictive laws and tactics” that Republicans have employed to keep people from voting, Wiley said. “These laws are not passed to make our system safer. They were not passed to save money … But that's what you do if your election strategy is to have as few people vote as possible. That’s what the Republican strategy is.”
He provided quotes from some Republicans that he said demonstrated the strategy:
_ “I guess I really feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban – read African-American – voter-turnout machine,” Ohio GOP Chairman Doug Preis said.
_ “I’ve had some radical ideas about voting and it’s probably not a good time to tell them, but you used to have to be a property owner to vote,” Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla. said.
_ “If it hurts a bunch of lazy blacks that want the government to give them everything, so be it,” Buncombe County, North Carolina GOP Precinct Chair Don Yelton said on The Daily Show about the state’s voter ID law.
Daniel Garza, executive director of LIBRE, a conservative group that wants to increase Latino voting, said he has no problem with requiring identification to vote because his group believes in preserving the “integrity” of the vote and the principle of “one man, one vote.”
“I’ve never been in a meeting where people have said we need to suppress the vote. I’ve never heard a conservative in a room saying ‘What can we do to keep Latinos from voting? It doesn’t occur, it doesn’t happen," Garza said.
Garza said he did not know enough about the other voting restrictions passed in states, so could not comment on that. But he said his group puts a priority on informing Latinos and wants them to be informed and is not trying to keep people home.
“The left has worked hard to suppress our voice. We’ve been slammed by the left to shut up to not do outreach, to not engage,” Garza said.
In her speech, Clinton recalled her days working to register voters in the Rio Grande Valley 33 years ago.
“Some of the people I met were understandably a little wary of a girl from Chicago who didn’t speak a word of Spanish, but they wanted to vote. They were citizens, they knew they had a right to be heard. They wanted to exercise all the rights and responsibilities that citizenship conveys,” she said.
Clinton is scheduled to speak next week before the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), a bipartisan group. Any increase in getting young people to register and turn out to vote would benefit Latinos because it is a young population.
The Supreme Court’s decision on the Voting Rights Act removed protection for 7 million Latino voters, said Arturo Vargas, NALEO’s executive director.
“We would want to have those protections restored,” he said. “But we are very interested in a modernized Voting Rights Act that looks to prospectively protect the rights of all voters.”