51 Years After the VRA, Our Vote is Still Vulnerable

Posted on 08/11/2016 @ 07:45 PM

By: Geoffrey Nolan, LULAC National Communications Associate

Last Saturday marked the 51st anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As one of the landmark pieces of civil rights legislation signed into law by President Johnson, the VRA extended crucial civil rights protections to all Americans. For decades, the VRA helped protect the right to vote for millions of vulnerable minority Americans in areas where historic racism had left them disenfranchised.

After being gutted by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Shelby v. Holder decision, laws aimed at suppressing the voting power of minority communities sprung up across the United States. However, over the past couple of weeks, the courts have taken action and struck down laws in North Carolina, Texas, Wisconsin, North Dakota, and Kansas that were found to discriminate against minority voters. As the 2016 Presidential election approaches—the first without federal voting protections since the passage of the VRA—it’s important that we harness the power of these court victories against voter suppression and demand that Congress take action to restore the VRA.

Voting is one of the cornerstones of American democracy. The idea of the eligible voter has evolved over time to include non-landowners, women, and racial minorities, and we can take pride in the fact that more people than ever have the right and the opportunity to play a direct role in American democracy. For such an important task, it makes sense to make it easier to vote so that as many Americans as possible can participate. States like California have led the charge and have enacted legislation that makes it easier for people to vote, such as automatic registration at the Department of Motor Vehicles, extending early voting periods, and allowing voters to access online registration. Efforts like these make voting easier, helping create a more robust democratic society—something that every American should see as a good thing.

Unfortunately, not all states have followed California’s lead. The ink was barely dry on the Supreme Court’s Shelby decision when lawmakers in states and counties formerly covered by the VRA preclearance procedure rushed to enact new voting laws. In North Carolina, lawmakers enacted a voting law with strict ID requirements, limitations on early voting, and the elimination of same-day registration. In Texas, voters could only show seven forms of state-approved ID to cast their ballot. Passports, driver licenses, and gun licenses were all valid forms of ID, but a student ID—even from a Texas public school—did not qualify.

Ever since the Shelby decision, civil rights advocates across the country began to challenge these rulings—even without strong congressional legislation to aid their cases. Despite this, advocates continued their fight—and won. In July 2016, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Texas ID Law had a discriminatory impact on voters and urged Texas to make the necessary changes to remedy this issue. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in the North Carolina case went even further, striking down the North Carolina ID law after concluding that it was passed with specific intent to prevent African-Americans from voting after lawmakers requested information on what voting practices African-Americans utilized and then severely limited those practices through legislation.

Despite 51 years since it’s signing, current events show us that the fight for the right to vote is not over. The Texas and North Carolina cases demonstrate that there is a concerted effort among state lawmakers to suppress the vote of certain voting blocks that do not vote the way that they want them to. It’s important that we remain vigilant in our communities to ensure that no eligible voter faces any obstacles that prevent them from exercising their right to vote. In her address at the 87th annual LULAC National Convention, U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch stated that the number of federal election observers will be significantly reduced due to the Shelby decision, placing much more responsibility on local communities to ensure that their elections are fair. However, relying on the goodwill of individuals and local communities is not enough. States must be held accountable to strong federal protections that prevent them from disenfranchising their own citizens. Moving forward, LULAC will continue to advocate for a restored Voting Rights Act that effectively protects ALL citizens and their sacred right to vote.

Geoffrey Nolan is a Communications Associate at LULAC National. He graduated from the University of Georgia, with degrees in International Affairs and Spanish.

Latino Zika Week of Action and How You Can Lower Your Risk

Posted on 08/05/2016 @ 07:45 PM

By: Geoffrey Nolan, LULAC National Communications Associate

Perhaps you’ve heard of the athletes who refuse to go to the Olympic Games out of Zika fears, or maybe you read about the threat of Zika Virus in the newspaper. The undeniable truth is that the Zika Virus is quickly making its way to American shores and has the potential to infect some of our most vulnerable citizens. Just this week, the CDC issued an unprecedented travel advisory for a Miami neighborhood due to an outbreak, the first time the CDC has issued such an advisory in the United States. Although Zika is a popular buzzword thrown around by media pundits, it’s important that we do not underestimate the severe effects of the virus on certain subgroups. It’s imperative that we take an active role in preventing our friends and loved ones from contracting it.

Even though stories about the Zika Virus receive almost daily media coverage, very few Americans know the actual symptoms of the virus and are able to adequately assess their risk. The tricky thing about Zika is that its symptoms may seem like any other sickness. Those infected often experience fever, rash, joint pain, conjunctivitis, muscle pain, and headache. Those at highest risk are pregnant women who can pass the virus to the fetus, causing the baby to potentially be born with a variety of birth defects including microcephaly..

How do you prevent the spread of Zika? Because the primary cause of infection is mosquito bites, it is imperative that one take all the necessary precautions to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes. Wear long sleeve shirts and long pants outdoors and always use insect repellent to protect yourself from mosquitoes outside. When inside your home, make sure to eliminate breeding spaces for mosquitoes, including any stagnant water. Zika can also be spread through sexual contact, so it is essential that men always where a condom when engaging in sexual activity to reduce their risk of contracting or spreading the virus.

For Latino Zika Week of Action, LULAC is partnering with other Latino organizations, the CDC, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to ensure that the Latino community has all the necessary information to adequately assess their risk factors and take the necessary precautions to protect themselves. Together we can stop the spread of Zika and lessen its impact in our country. To learn more, visit www.cdc.gov/zika.

Geoffrey Nolan is a Communications Associate at LULAC National. He graduated from the University of Georgia, where he majored in International Affairs and Spanish.

Ensuring Equality for All

Posted on 06/28/2016 @ 07:45 PM

By: Alejandro Oms, LULAC National Policy and Legislation Intern

Since its founding 87 years ago, LULAC has fought to ensure that Latinos are not left behind as our nation progresses. As the Latino community continues to face obstacles, LULAC will continue to fight on our behalf, but some other communities are falling behind and are fighting the same fights that LULAC fought almost one hundred years ago. One of these communities is the LGBT community, and even today LGBT individuals can be fired from their jobs in twenty-eight states due to nonexistent employment non-discrimination laws. The ACLU is currently tracking legislation in twenty-five states that make it effectively legal to discriminate against the LGBT community and would even allow continual federal and state funding to organizations that discriminate against the community. Despite this, on June 26th, 2015, the LGBT community across the country celebrated the Supreme Court ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges which expanded the right to marry to all United States citizens.

Celebration was followed by a disappointing streak of legislative backlashes. On March 23, 2016, the governor of North Carolina signed a bill that prevents individuals from using the bathroom of their gender identity. On April 5, 2016, the governor of Mississippi signed a bill that legalizes discrimination against the LGBT community by allowing businesses and individuals to discriminate against the community based on religious freedom. On May 19, 2016, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to allow federal contractors to continue discriminating against LGBT employees on the basis of religious freedom. Anti-LGBT sentiment culminated in the tragic events of June 12 when a gunman entered Pulse Nightclub’s Latin night and killed forty-nine members of the LGBT community and injured another fifty-three people, making it the worst mass shooting in the history of the country.

Justice Sotomayor described feelings that minorities have all experienced in one of her Supreme Court dissents:

And race matters for reasons that really are only skin deep, that cannot be discussed any other way, and that cannot be wished away. Race matters to a young man’s view of society when he spends his teenage years watching others tense up as he passes, no matter the neighborhood where he grew up. Race matters to a young woman’s sense of self when she states her hometown, and then is pressed, “No, where are you really from?”, regardless of how many generations her family has been in the country. Race matters to a young person addressed by a stranger in a foreign language, which he does not understand because only English was spoken at home. Race matters because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: “I do not belong here.”

Sotomayor's language can also apply to what the LGBT community faces: Sexuality matters to a young man’s view of society when he watches others sneer as he passes, while he holds the hand of his boyfriend. Gender matters to a young woman’s sense of self as she has to research each state she visits wondering if she will be arrested for using the women’s bathroom. Sexuality matters to a young person who cannot talk to her family about her crush without being thrown out of her home. Sexuality and gender matter because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: “I do not belong here.”

We cannot outlaw hatred, but we should not legalize it.

When I was young I used to watch Mr. Rogers. He once said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” As a community, we can look at others fighting the same things we fought decades ago and decide if we are going to be the helpers or if we are going to be bystanders. LULAC stood with the LGBT community through Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the fight for marriage equality. We must continue to be allies to the LGBT community now and ensure that their rights continue to be protected.

Alejandro Oms is a Policy and Legislation Intern at the LULAC National Office in Washington, D.C. He is a recent graduate from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, with a degree in political science and certificate in international relations.

Three Years After Shelby, We Still Need Congress to Restore the VRA

Posted on 06/24/2016 @ 07:45 PM

By: Alejandro Oms, LULAC National Policy and Legislation Intern

Fifty-one years ago, thousands of protesters left Selma, Alabama to march to Montgomery with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in order to fight for equality at the voting booth. The months leading up to the march were filled with violence against peaceful protesters and growing national pressure to protect everyone’s right to vote. That August, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to prevent discriminatory voter laws. Although it would take ten years for the VRA to be properly expanded to include Latinos, the legislation protected minority voters in states and counties with histories of discrimination for almost fifty years. Three years ago in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court determined that the formula that determined which states qualified for “preclearance” in section 4 of the VRA was unconstitutional. Previously, states in the Deep South, the Southwest, and other cities and counties had to seek approval from the federal government when changing their voting laws to ensure that they were not targeting vulnerable minorities groups such as Latinos and African Americans.

One of the hallmarks of the VRA was that it protected American citizens from all walks of life during its forty-eight years. Vice President of Litigation at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) Nina Perales used the VRA to protect the voting rights of Latinos for years. Prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling, Perales penned an opinion piece on the importance of the case and its potential consequences. At least one of Arizona’s redistricting plans each cycle between 1975 and 2013 had been rejected under the VRA because the new districts would intentionally harm the Latino community’s ability to represent itself in government. In that same time frame, the VRA prevented implementation of more than two hundred election laws in Texas that would have been detrimental to Latino representation.

This autumn’s election will be the first presidential election without the protections of the VRA. Without strong federal protections, we have already seen some of the effects of the Shelby County decision. Several states have taken advantage of lax regulations and have implemented voter identification laws, lessened the amount of early voting, and implemented other hindrances in registering to vote, which disproportionately affect minorities. One notable controversy since the end of the VRA was the contested Arizona Democratic Primary of the 2016 election cycle where counties in Arizona with large Latino populations contained almost 75% less voting locations than they did in 2012.

Despite massive bipartisan support for the restoration of the VRA, Congress has continually failed to pass legislation with an updated coverage formula to implement the act within the parameters of the Supreme Court ruling. In the face of congressional inaction, state governments continue to suppress voters of color in the name of saving money and combating voter fraud. In his majority opinion, Chief Justice Roberts praised the VRA and the good it achieved. The issue the Court found was not in the spirit of the Act, but in its application formula. Chief Justice Roberts explicitly states, “Congress may draft another formula based on current conditions.” The Court hoped that Congress would do its job and update the formula to protect minorities in a modern age throughout the entire country.

As it always has, LULAC will continue to encourage voter registration and civic participation, despite congressional inaction to protect the rights of Latinos to vote. We will be holding registration drives through the election season. Click here for more voter registration information based on your state. If you would like to volunteer to help our registration drives, Click here.

Alejandro Oms is a Policy and Legislation Intern at the LULAC National Office in Washington, D.C. He is a recent graduate from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, with a degree in political science and certificate in international relations.

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