Miguel Concepción, chair of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Congress of Puerto Rican Rights, is seeing firsthand the effects of a strict voter ID law on Pennsylvania’s Latino and largely Puerto Rican community.
“The more exacerbated they get, the less engaged they are,” said Concepción about eligible Latino voters who have had to go several times to state facilities to prove they can vote. He spoke of the difficulties involved, including department of transportation offices whose staff did not even know they could not charge for the photo IDs required to vote. “Our concern is that the end result will be we turn off voters,” said Concepción.
Concepción spoke to journalists about Pennsylvania’s voter ID law, currently contested in the state’s courts, during a conference call on a new report, Segregating American Citizenship: Latino Voter Disenfranchisement in 2012, which was written and presented by a multi-racial civil rights group, The Advancement Project.
Twenty three states have enacted laws which are making it harder for Latinos and people of color to vote, says the group. The laws and restrictions involve voter purges, proof of citizenship requirements and restrictive voter ID laws.
Katherine Culliton-González, Senior Attorney and Director of Voter Protection at the Advancement Project, says these laws have created “a two-tiered voting system, where naturalized citizens have to jump through hoops” to exercise their right to vote. For example, she says, 98 percent of the voters who were questioned in Florida about their citizenship status and their right to vote turned out to be eligible. Culliton-González gave several examples of eligible Latinos who had to prove their right to vote, like a family of U.S.-born voters questioned because their last name was “Aguirre,” or a Venezuelan naturalized citizen who received a letter questioning her voting credentials, though she had everything in place. Penda Hair, Advancement Project co-founder, was blunt in her assessment on why these laws have been enacted.
“The same playbook of restricting access to vote – is being focused on a new emerging voter demographic,” said Hair. She added that as Latinos become a powerful and increasingly large voting block, “our goal is to ensure communities of color are not silenced – it goes to the heart of who we are as a democracy,” she added.
The group also said Republican legislators across the country had enacted these laws in response to higher numbers of Latino voters – as well as higher numbers for President Obama. Latino Republican legislators have repeatedly disputed this. Florida Senator Marco Rubio has said “it is not a big deal” to show photo ID, just like you would for boarding a flight. Texas Republican Latino legislator Jose Aliseda said to NBC Latino recently. “You need an ID to cash a check or even rent a movie – the idea that Hispanics don’t have IDs is absurd.”
Aliseda wrote in Texas Monthly that he does not know of any “real, live, Texas citizen” who does not have a valid form of ID. But that is not what the Justice Department found, which resulted in the striking down of the Texas voter ID requirement. Some poor Hispanics with no driver’s licenses and no access to a car lived many miles away from facilities which were only open a few days a month. Attorney General Eric Holder recently said these laws amount to a modern-day “poll tax” meant to disenfranchise minorities from voting.
In states such as Pennsylvania, the new restrictions requiring residents to bring documentation like birth certificates is creating hurdles among the large Puerto Rican community. Puerto Ricans born in the island cannot use their original birth certificates, which were invalidated several years ago by the island to combat fraud. Applying for the new birth certificate is taking a long time, say community activists, threatening the ability of some residents to vote in the state if the law is not struck down.
Another issue is the many young Pennsylvania Latinos who live with their parents, and may not be able to show utility bills with their names on it. “It is a frustrating process,” said Miguel Concepción of Latino voter registration efforts across the state. In June, Pennsylvania Republican House leader Mike Turzai said voter ID “is going to allow Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania,” in comments made in a Republican state committee meeting.
The Advancement Project is urging voters to use resources such as the Protect our Vote tool in their website which gives out information on each state’s voting guidelines and registration dates. In the meantime, the Advancement Project, like other civil rights groups, are involved in court cases around the country in an attempt to stop the implementation of these new voting laws.