At 58 million, Latinos – the largest minority ethnic group in the US – are powerful. With 66,000 Latinos turning 18, the voting age, every single month, that force is vast enough to transform the political balance of our local, state, and federal governments. But that potential depends on one factor: Those who are legally able to vote utilizing their right by turning out to the polls on Election Day. Suffrage wasn’t an easy right to obtain or maintain for people of color, including Latinos, many of whom had to wait a decade after the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965 to cast their ballot. Even still, our enfranchisement is under perpetual threat by increased voting restrictions that impact Black and brown populations the hardest.
Here, a look at Latino voting rights in the US, from preserving suffrage in the 1960s to defending it today.
On August 6, 1965, at the height of the swinging sixties, a time of youth-led cultural and political upheaval and change, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The law, a treasure of the civil rights movement, enforced the voting rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments – which granted citizenship to anyone “born or naturalized in the United States” and prohibited states from disenfranchising voters “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” respectively. While the act intended to overcome legal barriers at the state and local levels that prevented African Americans in particular from employing their right to vote, the law was far-reaching, securing this right for most racial and ethnic minorities, including English-speaking Latinos in the southwest, northeast, and southeast.
In 1974, the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, the first and largest non-partisan Latino voter participation organization in the US, started operations, with founder William C. Velasquez, and other Mexican-American political activists, discovering early that, despite the achievements of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, there remained barriers – particularly, language – for Latino voters preventing them from exercising their right.
While the Voting Rights Act of 1965 included a section that ensured that people educated in US schools that were predominately taught in a language other than English – for instance, island Puerto Ricans – could not be denied the right to vote because of their inability to read, write, understand, or interpret material in English, Spanish-speakers in the contiguous US, including mainland Boricuas, were often still discriminated against at the polls. This changed on August 6, 1975, exactly one decade after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, when, following several court battles on behalf of Latino-Americans, President Gerald Ford amended the act to also end discrimination against so-called “language minorities.” Protecting the voting rights of Latinos, as well as non-English-speaking Asian Americans and Native Americans, made it possible to translate registration materials into other languages and strengthened the political power of communities of color.
The voting triumphs of the 1960s and ‘70s saw a backlash a decade later when President Ronald Reagan took office in 1981. The Reagan administration embraced the notion of colorblindness, the idea of promoting racial equality through race-neutral governmental policies that ignore the ways in which race, ethnicity, language, and immigration status limit individuals’ opportunities. Unlike in the past, Reagan’s head of the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, which enforced the Voting Rights Amendment, William Bradford Reynolds, argued that previous answers to discrimination, particularly affirmative action, busing quotas, and drawing districts so that candidates of color could be elected, favored Black and brown communities against white Americans and thus were a part of the racial problem, not an answer to them. Despite this new perspective in the White House, in 1982, when the special provisions made by Johnson and Ford neared expiration, Congress voted to extend most of the conditions by 25 years, except for the bilingual election requirement, which was expanded to just seven more years.
In 1992, when the bilingual election requirement was close to expiring, Rep. José E. Serrano (D-NY) introduced the Voting Rights Language Assistance Act of 1992, legislation that aimed to extend the provision for 15 years, meaning it would expire in 2007 like the other special provisions. A contentious congressional battle followed, with proponents of the legislation arguing that the lack of language assistance hinders recent naturalized citizens from exercising their right to vote and opponents asserting that the provision was too costly, suggesting removing the amendment entirely, limiting the extension to five years or requiring the federal government to pay for bilingual voting materials. Still, with mostly Democratic support, the legislation passed and was signed by President George H. W. Bush on August 26, 1992.
In 2006, a year away from the expiration of the special provisions, Congress reconsidered the act. While Republicans, who controlled both chambers as well as the presidency, largely considered the legislation a snub to color-blindness and states’ rights, others, who saw how the provisions allowed language-minority voters, particularly Latinos in South Florida and Asian Americans, in their districts to vote for them, helped renew the special provisions in what was called the Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King, Cesar E. Chavez, Barbara Jordan, William Velazquez and Dr. Hector Garcia Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act. However, the amended legislation eliminated the provision for voting examiners, appointees who oversaw registration in their jurisdictions, making it easier for voting discrimination to occur unnoticed.
Since 2010, communities of color have seen voting restrictions increase, particularly in the form of strict photo ID requirements, like in Texas, Wisconsin and North Carolina, to early voting cutbacks, as seen in Florida, to other registration restrictions. Also, in 2013, in the case of Shelby v. Holder, the Supreme Court weakened voting rights protections by removing the requirement that some jurisdictions with a history of voting discrimination get pre-approval for voting changes, with states like Texas, Mississippi, North Carolina, Florida, Virginia, South Dakota, Iowa, and Indiana wasting little time enacting possibly discriminatory laws.
A 2018 poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and The Atlantic shows how these new qualifications and the loss of protections are leading to voter suppression, with Black and Latino voters facing more barriers at the voting booth. According to poll findings, 9 percent of Latino respondents, compared to 3 percent of whites, say that they (or someone in their household) were told that they lacked the proper identification to vote in the last election. Similarly, 11 percent of Latino respondents, compared to 5 percent of whites, reported that they were incorrectly told that they weren’t listed on voter rolls. In all, the poll found that Black and Latino respondents were twice as likely, or more, to have experienced barriers as their white respondents.