The year 1965 is a landmark for civil rights in our nation—it is the year President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act (VRA) into law, a turning point in the fight for equality and the eradication of institutionalized discrimination in the United States. Many consider the VRA to be the most significant piece of civil rights legislation in the country’s history—for years it has helped ensure historically disenfranchised and segregated minority communities are given equal access to the voting booth and an equal voice in determining our national destiny. Following the enactment of the VRA, electoral participation in Black and Latino communities soared as did the number of elected minorities. As a result, today we have a much more diverse electorate and Congress.
In 1975 Congress passed amendments to the VRA that protect nonnative English speakers, marking one of the most significant developments in voting rights protections for Latinos and creating a more inclusive election system for all language minorities. Since then Latinos have made considerable strides toward gaining voting equality.
As we approach a critical election year, it becomes even more urgent that Congress act expeditiously and make whole a law that strengthens and preserves the nation’s democracy.
Through these five decades, the VRA has remained a valuable and relevant tool because despite substantial progress in civil rights, our work is not yet done. On several fronts, Latinos continue to be the target of efforts to limit participation in the voting booth. Two years ago, those behind efforts to curb voter protections took their case before the Supreme Court. In the case Shelby County v. Holder, the United States Supreme Court ruled in a 5–4 decision that Section 5 of the act, which contained the formula to determine which localities, counties, or states, based histories of voter discrimination, were required to get election law changes precleared by the federal government, was unconstitutional because it was outdated. In so doing the court left millions of American voters without critical voter protections.
The decision’s disproportionate impact on Latinos’ ability to fully participate in the electoral process cannot be overstated. Consider that 32 percent of Latino eligible voters currently reside in pre-Shelby-covered jurisdictions compared to 24 percent of the non-Latino population. Further, approximately 900,000 U.S.-born Hispanics turn 18 every year and the rate of Latino eligible voters is projected to increase over the next several decades, including in states such as Texas and Arizona with long histories of voting rights discrimination against Latinos.
The ruling has further emboldened states to implement restrictive voting requirements, including photo voter ID and proof of citizenship requirements, aimed at limiting Latino voter participation. Without the enforcement provisions of the VRA, who is to stop them? Thus far, over 35 states across the nation have passed or have introduced restrictive voting measures, including reducing early voting periods (heavily used by minority voters) and adopting burdensome administrative requirements that constrain voter registration drives and other efforts by community based organizations, like NCLR (now UnidosUS), working to increase Latino voter participation.
As we mark the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, we urge
Congress to restore the provisions of the VRA and strengthen its protections with additional safeguards that reflect the country’s current demographic changes. As we approach a critical election year, it becomes even more urgent that Congress act expeditiously and make whole a law that strengthens and preserves the nation’s democracy.
By Janet Murguía
Janet Murguía, President and CEO, UnidosUS.