Latino groups push for update to Voting Rights Act

6/13/2014

By Vera Bergengruen

By Vera Bergengruen

McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (MCT) — Citing concerns about new state voter-ID laws and voter roll purges, a coalition of Latino organizations on Thursday called on Congress to push ahead with its update of the federal Voting Rights Act.

Speaking in a news conference on the steps of the Supreme Court a year after justices struck down a key component of the federal law, members of three organizations released a report on what they say are potential problems in states with histories of discrimination.

"We were told that this kind of voting discrimination doesn't exist anymore," said Luz Weinberg, a city commissioner from Aventura, Fla., who's a member of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. "They said, 'Give us some examples.' So here are our examples; now it's time for Congress to act."

The 5-4 Supreme Court decision last June in Shelby County v. Holder threw out a vital provision of the landmark 1965 legislation. That provision required jurisdictions with histories of voter discrimination to get approval from the Justice Department before they change any election practices. The justices invited Congress to set a new formula adapting the law to changing times.

In response, the bipartisan Voting Rights Amendment Act was introduced in January. In the House of Representatives, Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., whose committee holds jurisdiction over the bill, hasn't scheduled a hearing. In the Senate, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has said he'll hold a hearing on the issue of voting rights.

"Chairman Goodlatte should schedule a hearing on the bill, but he has refused," said Hector Sanchez, the chairman of the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, a coalition of national Latino organizations. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund also contributed to the report. "If in fact he believes that voting discrimination does not exist, then let's have that debate."

In a statement Thursday, Goodlatte responded: "I fully support protecting the voting rights of all Americans. As Congress determines whether additional steps are needed to protect those rights, I will carefully consider legislative proposals addressing the issue." He hasn't said whether he'll hold a hearing.

The Voting Rights Act has been used primarily to protect the civil rights of blacks. But Thursday's event highlighted several examples of practices that affect the growing Latino electorate. As of 2012, Latinos made up over a quarter of the voting age populations in Texas and California, and 16 percent in Florida.

Before the court's ruling last summer, the Voting Rights Act had stopped several potentially discriminating practices, the report said. In 2007, for example, Texas tried to bar candidates who weren't landowners from running for supervisor of fresh water supply districts. Upon inspection, the Justice Department found that every incumbent supervisor who didn't own land was Latino, and it didn't approve the practice, the report said.

Two years later, the report said, the Justice Department stopped Gonzales County, Texas, from reducing the number of bilingual poll workers and removing Spanish-language election procedures that had been in place since the 1970s.

Almost 7 million Latino voters live in jurisdictions previously subject to the preapproval requirement, according to the organizations' report.

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