Nearly four decades ago, Pearsall watermelon farmer Modesto Rodriguez testified before Congress that discrimination against Latino voters was rampant in Texas. He urged the federal government to continue to oversee the state’s electoral process, saying that law enforcement officers in Frio County walked around polling places “brandishing guns and billy clubs” to find reasons to arrest Latino voters. His activism nearly cost him his life. When he got back home, Rodriguez went into the Buenos Aires bar in Pearsall in an effort to recruit Latinos to talk with Justice Department investigators about voting-rights violations. He was severely beaten by agents from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission and Department of Public Safety officers, court records show. “He got beat to a pulp,” said George Korbel, a San Antonio lawyer who was then working with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Chicago on civil rights legislation.
The Buenos Aires bar no longer stands, but Section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act does. It provides for special federal oversight in areas of the country with a history of electoral discrimination.
Now, Texas is anxiously awaiting a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, expected within weeks, on whether Section 5 should survive.
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments earlier this year on a challenge from Shelby County, Ala., alleging that Section 5 is unconstitutional because of its limited application to nine states.
The plaintiffs argued that significant progress against voter discrimination has been made. African-Americans in Alabama participated in elections at a higher rate than those in Massachusetts, they argued.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has filed a brief supporting the challenge.
Texas also argued that Section 5 is unconstitutional in its pending appeal to the Supreme Court after a federal district court ruled the state’s new voter ID law intentionally discriminated against minorities.