Among Latino civil and voting rights groups, reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act ranged from “a real blow to voter rights” to guarded optimism that the Justices still recognize discrimination exists.
“Today is a dark day in American jurisprudence,” said Mexican American Legislative Caucus (MALC) Voting Rights Counsel Jose Garza.
“Today the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act despite an unprecedented assault by over 20 states to create systemic barriers that targeted youth and minority voters from participating at the polls this past election,” states Voto Latino’s CEO and President Maria Teresa Kumar.
In a starkly divided vote, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to strike down the “preclearance” requirement of the Voting Rights Act, which required certain states to obtain federal permission before making any changes to their voting laws.
Attorneys like Garza used this section of the law to successfully argue voter maps in Texas had been discriminatory; a D.C. court agreed and the voter maps were disallowed.
In its decision, the Supreme Court said it was up to Congress to ensure there is no voter discrimination.
Texas conservative Republican Senator Ted Cruz agreed with the majority opinion. ”The Court rightly decided that the statutory standards used decades ago to subject democratically-elected state legislatures to second-guessing by unelected federal bureaucrats no longer survives constitutional scrutiny,” said Cruz in a statement.
Other Latino Republicans have taken issue with the idea that more stringent voter laws are discriminatory. While the Texas voter ID law was being debated in 2012, Republican Texas state representative José Aliseda told NBC Latino ““Once again, the Obama Justice Department is putting politics ahead of common sense. You need an ID to cash a check or even rent a movie,” says Aliseda. “The idea that Hispanics don’t have IDs is absurd.”
Nina Perales, Vice President of Litigation at MALDEF (the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund), says the preclearance provision played a vital role in protecting Latino voters prior to the November 2012 elections.
“Just last year in Texas, federal courts relied on the preclearance provision to block two discriminatory laws against Latinos,” says Perales. ”One was a proposal to put in the strictest voter ID law in the country and the other was a discriminatory plan for election boundaries. Without the preclearance provision of Section 5, hundreds of thousands of Latino voters would have been unable to cast an effective vote,” says Perales.
Texas Democratic state representative and MALC member Trey Martinez Fischer was more guardedly optimistic following today’s decision. ”I think we need to look at what’s really important; Section 5 was not found to be unconstitutional; the court recognizes that voter discrimination still exists.”
But Enid Trucios-Haynes, a professor of law at the Brandeis School of Law at the University of Louisville-Kentucky, worries about the interim period before Congress comes up with an alternative plan. “I think there is no recourse right now until Congress comes up with a new formula.”
Trucios-Haynes went further, saying the decision “strikes a blow for civil rights and for protecting voting rights.”
“In 2006 Congress had reauthorized the Voting Rights Act for 25 more years,” adds Trucios-Haynes, “and they had evidence then for continued discrimination, but the Supreme Court is essentially saying with this ruling, that this is not enough – it’s overriding Congress’ assessment for the need to have this part of the law.”
The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) said they were “disappointed,” and urged Congress to “act swiftly to enact a new coverage formula that will address discriminatory practices and threats to voting rights.”
President Obama expressed a similar opinion.
“For nearly 50 years, the Voting Rights Act – enacted and repeatedly renewed by wide bipartisan majorities in Congress – has helped secure the right to vote for millions of Americans. Today’s decision invalidating one of its core provisions upsets decades of well-established practices that help make sure voting is fair, especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent.”