Look up at your clock. By this same hour tomorrow, more than 1,500 US-born Latinos will have celebrated a milestone birthday, and turned 18. They’ll be eligible to vote in local, state and federal elections in their home states—but if that state is Texas, that right is under threat.
A case being heard this week by a panel of judges in DC will determine if Texas can demand strict forms of photo ID at the polls. The Lone Star State passed the bill and it was signed into law early this year. But what’s more broadly in question is the federal government’s continued power under the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Under the Voting Rights Act, Texas, along with other states that have historically discriminated against people of color around elections, must seek preclearance from the Department of Justice for changes to voting districts or regulations. And in the case of Texas’ voter ID law, that permission was denied. Texas admits that more than 600,000 people lack the necessary identification required—but insists that the law isn’t discriminatory because no-cost ID will be made available, and voters who still lack ID will still be able to cast provisional ballots.
But even when they’re free, IDs are not always so easy to acquire. In Mississippi, another Southern state waiting on DOJ preclearance, voters need a birth certificate to get an ID—but can’t get that birth certificate unless they already have an ID in their possession. And provisional ballots are often challenged, so casting one does not guarantee that the vote will count.
Civil rights groups, meanwhile, argue that the law discriminates against Latinos and other marginalized groups; the DOJ argues that Texas hasn't proven the law doesn't have a discriminatory effect–and it's the state's burden to do so* . When Attorney General Eric Holder addressed the National Council of La Raza this past weekend, he made clear that the DOJ is vigilantly watching threats to voting rights through “redistricting plans, photo identification requirements, and changes affecting third party registration,” not just for Latinos and other people of color, but also for people with disabilities and those living abroad.
The number of Latino voters around the nation is rising—youth especially. Half of all eligible Latino voters are under the age of 40; one-third are between 18 and 34. Back in Texas, which boasts the second-largest Latino population after California, young Latinos who are enrolled in college won’t be eligible to use their school ID in order to vote under the new law. Yet a concealed handgun permit is perfectly valid at the polls. One might think that under Texas’ new law, gun toting is rewarded, but higher education is not.
Harris County, which encompasses Houston, remains Texas’ largest county, and according to the most recent census data, Latinos make up more than 40 percent of the population there. In Hidalgo County, Texas’ eighth-largest county, more than 90 percent of the population is Latino. Texas holds the second-highest number of electoral votes (again, after California), but it’s not certain that the rising number of young Latinos there will be eligible to have their vote counted under the new law.
Beyond voter ID in Texas and other states, redistricting, registration restrictions and voter purges are targeting Latino voters in Florida, Colorado and beyond. Although the black vote is also being targeted, we should remember that the right for Latinos to vote for local seats, state ballot initiatives and federal elections, which is guarded under the Voting Rights Act, is increasingly under threat.
Pennsylvania’s Conflict of Interest
The firm that received a $250,000 contract to create an ad campaign for Pennsylvania’s voter ID law is headed by Chris Bravacos, who just so happens to moonlight as a fundraiser for Mitt Romney. Bravacos himself seems keen on hiding the connection—his firm, Bravos Group, removed the ads after a Philly paper exposed the link over the weekend. But don’t fret, because both ads, one of which oddly suggest that voter ID is somehow an extension of civil rights, have been re-posted by Occupy Harrisburg.
*This post has been updated to clarify the DOJ's position.