I read recently that the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. This is something that I probably would not have noticed before living in Arizona.
The Voting Rights Act was signed into law in 1965. The purpose was to give the Federal government a mechanism to intervene in jurisdictions where election rules operated with the intent, or effect, of restricting groups of citizens from exercising their right to vote. The law is complex and I would not pretend to understand all its subtleties. The two sections I have learned to care about are Section 203 and Section 5.
Section 203 requires states to take steps to ensure citizens for whom English is a second language have full access to voting materials, including ballots. The practical effect of this in Arizona is that our election information and ballots are printed in both English and Spanish. In certain counties, where the Native population is large, they are also available in some Native American languages. Because our ballot in the most recent election was long (!!) due to the ballot proposals and judicial review elections, rather than having one bilingual ballot, we had separate ballots in each language. Voters could request the ballot on which they wished to vote. Section 203 is not the Section of the Act the Court agreed to review but it is related. Here’s why.
Section 5 gives the U.S. Justice Department the right to directly supervise the election procedures in States with a history of discriminatory practices. This is back when it was called ‘discrimination’; a crime; not ‘voter suppression’; a political strategy. As you can imagine, most of the of the focus of this enforcement fell on the States in the Deep South. But other States, including Arizona and Texas, are also covered. What this means, in practice, is that because the states have a history of managing their elections in a discriminatory fashion, they must get Justice Department sign-off on any proposed changes in election process; such as printing separate ballots in different languages and the other things done to comply with Section 203.
The challenge, from a county in Alabama, asks the court to strike down Section 5 because it is based on decades-old historical practices. In nutshell, they are saying that the sins of the past are ‘old news’ and are no longer relevent to current political processes. The Court’s decision to hear the case came a few days after an election where, it could be argued that, minority voters played a significant role in the outcome.
But why pick on Arizona; home of cowboy independence and the spirit of fair play? This is all stuff from the ‘Jim Crow’ South; right? I mean, that was ‘Bull’ Connor in 1950’s Birmingham; not Joe Arapio in 21st century Phoenix. Perhaps it has something to do with the Arizona Supreme Court ruling in 1928; four years after Federal law gave Native Americans the right to vote; that Native Americans, because they lived on reservations, were wards of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and therefore lacked the capacity to vote; like felons and those institutionalized for insanity. The Federal Courts overturned this ruling; of course. And it only took 20 years.
Perhaps it could have something to do with the literacy test that was still being used in Arizona until 1975, requiring voters be able to read a portion of the constitution in English? Keep in mind this was a decade after Section 203 required Spanish and Native language ballots. You had to be able to read the Preamble in English before you could get your Spanish-language ballot.
Of course the law can only change practices; hearts and minds must follow in their own time. Some anecdotal facts that, I am sure, are completely unrelated.
- An Arizona judge barred an woman; an American citizen, born in Arizona; from the ballot in a County Commissioners’ race because she did not have sufficient English language skills. The county in which she was seeking office is 98.7% Hispanic and 88% of the population do not speak English at home. I am certain these constituents will be better represented by an English speaker. Brutus is an honorable man.
- In the recent election, waiting times in the precincts with the highest percentages of Hispanic voters were measured in hours; not minutes. County officials assured us, on Fox News, that all the polling places were adequately staffed. The percentage of voters required to vote “provisional ballots’ was reported to be extraordinarily high as well. That was part of the reason for the long waiting times. Where was that happening again? Oh yea; the Hispanic precincts. That must be true because the website where one goes to verify that one’s provisional ballot was counted says to check back after 11/21. I am sure they will all be counted though. The officials say so and, afterall, Brutus is an honorable man.
- The Supreme Court has already agreed to hear Arizona’s challenge to an Appeals Court ruling that the 2004 law requiring individuals prove their citizenships rather than just swear to it under penalty of perjury as in other States, is unconstitutional. I moved here in 2005 and was not asked to provide such documentation but I am sure that was just an oversight and had nothing to do with the fact that I am Caucasian and have an Anglo-Saxon surname.
- Of course the Supreme Court has already ruled the the Arizona law allowing police officials to require proof of legal residency whenever someone is stopped with adequate probable cause is constitutional. No one interprets that to mean ‘driving-while-brown’ constitutes probable cause. I know that is true because our own Governor Jan
BrutusBrewer said so on Fox News.
In my precinct the lines were not so long. I am sure that is unrelated to the relatively small number of Hispanic voters. Also, the Inspector in charge of our polling place made sure she fully trained all the Poll workers on how to handle the “Mexican ballots” should one be requested.
I am sure all those discriminatory practices are ancient history and there would be no need to worry about the fairness of things without Justice Department oversight. Someone reassured me of that; on Fox New…. I think his name was Brutus.