In the 2012 general election, an estimated ten percent of votes were cast by Latinos. The record high number was accompanied by media commentary expressing surprise at the strength of the Latino vote. Of course Latino voters did not “awaken” last year. In the slow and steady march towards increased political participation, Latinos have fought to overcome laws aimed at preventing them from voting and reducing the strength of their vote. Throughout this process, Section 5 has played a central role in protecting Latino voters from the backsliding and gamesmanship that characterize the voting laws of many jurisdictions in which Latinos live. The decision this Term in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder will be critical to the ability of the growing Latino electorate to participate on an “equal basis in the government under which they live.”
Congress expanded Section 5 of the Act in 1975 to address voting discrimination against Latinos living in portions of the Southwest. As an amicus brief filed by Latino organizations in the Shelby County case recounts, racial discrimination against Latinos in the Southwest was persistent and severe. Beginning in the nineteenth century, in Texas and Arizona, Latinos suffered widespread displacement from their land and were forced to attend segregated schools, excluded from voting and jury service, relegated into low-wage work, and disproportionately convicted and punished by the justice system as well as by vigilantes. Latinos were lynched by Anglo mobs without the benefit of trial or representation and, in Texas, many lynchings of Mexican Americans were carried out by the Texas Rangers, a state police force, and their deputized civilians. Public schools, parks, restaurants, and theaters in Arizona and Texas remained segregated for Latinoswell into the twentieth century.
Arizona adopted an English literacy test for voting in 1912, the year it became a state, and used the law, along with requirements for minimum education, local property ownership, and minimum periods of residency to disenfranchise the state’s Mexican American voters. Organized racial intimidation at the polls, including Operation Eagle Eye, operated into the 1960s to exclude many Arizona Latinos from voting. When Congress banned literacy tests in 1970, Arizona challenged the law and lost in Oregon v. Mitchell. In every redistricting cycle since its coverage in 1975, one or more of Arizona’s statewide redistricting plans have been blocked by Section 5 because of discrimination against minority voters.
In Texas, practices such as the White Man’s Primary, the poll tax, annual registration requirements, and the outright refusal of election officials to register Mexican Americans worked together to prevent Mexican Americans from voting. Texas perfected the art of electoral gamesmanship, enacting new discriminatory laws to replace the laws struck down in litigation. When Texas sued unsuccessfully to challenge its coverage under Section 5, the U.S. Supreme Court noted in Briscoe v. Bell that Congress had found “’overwhelming evidence’ showing the ingenuity and prevalence of discriminatory practices” against Mexican Americans.