President Ford signed the Voting Rights Act Extension (VRA) into law in 1975. It expanded VRA protections to Language Minorities. It required 513 jurisdictions, and 30 states to hold bilingual elections, and added 276 counties to the preclearance requirements.
This was to address the structural language barriers that are one of the sneakiest ways that the United States practices white supremacy against Chicanos and Boricuas out in the open.
In 2013 the Supreme Court gutted the most powerful provision in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Section 5.
Let’s review the history of people of color voting in the United States and then discuss the barriers put in place to exclude them.
In 1870 the United States ratified the 15th Amendment, which gave all citizens in the United States the right to vote.
“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”National Constitution Center
More than a half-million Black men suddenly became voters in the South during the 1870s. It had the potential to remake the racial relations in this country. When Mississippi rejoined the Union in 1870, the formerly enslaved made up more than half of that state’s population. During Reconstruction, Mississippi sent two Black U.S. senators to Washington and elected a Black lieutenant governor.
Section 5 of the Act requires certain states and localities to gain federal approval for any voting change before it goes into effect to ensure it isn’t discriminatory. This approval is called “preclearance.”
The 1924 Snyder Act admitted Native Americans born in the U.S. to full U.S. citizenship and allowed them the right to vote.
So why did we have to have a Voting Rights Act? Because of the push back by white supremacist to maintain their hegemony.
At the end of reconstruction in 1877 the Black vote began to be dismantled. This continued through the early 20th century. Federal troops were removed from the South, the Posse Comitatus act was passed to prevent their use in domestic issues. The Klu Klux Klan rose in its place. The Midwestern states did not enforce the Snyder Act that respected Native Americans as citizens. South Dakota declared itself as a white state when it voted in 1925 to scrape the Six Grandfathers rock formation off and replace it with Mount Rushmore. This continued the tradition of whites supersession of Native Americans. White people saw themselves as the legitimate inheritors of all of North America.
In Shelby County v. Holder (2013), a 5-4 majority mothballed the law’s Section 5. It stated that the formula used to determine which states and localities had to follow the Section 5 protocols was out of date.
The 10th Amendment, ratified in 1791, was interpreted to protect states’ rights. The intent may have been for good reasons and for efficiency during a time of horseback mail delivery and sailing vessels. But the road to racial hell was paved with those good intentions. According to Southern states, those rights extended to denying Black people the right to vote. In the Northeast, West, and Midwestern states, that idea extended to denying Native Americans the right to vote.
The methods that these states used were sometimes subtle to give plausible deniability. Many think of the hard racism. For example preventing voting like a literal sign, like “No coloreds allowed.” Sometimes it WAS a literal sign, but often it was the more effective as quiet structural barriers:
Poll Taxes, which was often applied differently to poor whites as opposed to Black people and Native Americans.
Literacy Tests, which were often given in other languages. For instance giving an African American from Georgia a test in Chinese.
Grandfather clauses, that required an ancestor to have voted and therefore excluded the former slaves, children and grandchildren of slaves. This Scarlet Letter “I can’t vote” would be passed on to your children and descendents.
For nearly 50 years, Section 5 had assured that voting changes in several states — including Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia — were transparent, vetted, and fair to all voters regardless of race.
Other forms of structural barriers for both groups included gerrymandering, mega districts, at-large elections, and closed polling places.
But where is the Chicano in this story? How about the Boricua? Well, they were caught in between. We all occupy different spaces in oppression.
While the VRA of 1965 did a lot to dismantle structural barriers for Black, Native Americans, and other people of color. It was not inclusive of Language Minorities. Language Minorities are those people who do not communicate in English.
In the United States, a large number of people who fall within this designation are Spanish speaking. The vast majority being Chicano and Boricua. But this term could also apply to Native Americans, Asian Americans, Native Alaskans, and Native Hawaiians.
But Latinos were by far the biggest group impacted in regards to language structural barriers in regards to voting. Structural barriers using language, in many cases, targeted Latinos explicitly.
Within 24 hours of the Shelby ruling, Texas announced that it would implement a strict photo-ID law.
In Texas in the 1970s, Mexican Americans were regularly denied voter registration applications. If they didn’t read English, poll workers didn’t care and didn’t feel obligated to assist. A decade after the 1965 VRA Latinos were regularly denied the right to vote. The barrier that was used was not speaking or reading English. This was happening in Texas, California, Florida, Arizona, Colorado, and New York.
Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) president and general counsel, Vilma S. Martínez, told a congressional committee that private litigation would not solve this problem.
“It would be like attempting to empty the sea with a sand pail,” Martínez said.MALDEF
The 1965 Voters Right Act grew Black registered voters in the South from 250,000 to 1.5 million within a few months of its passage. The still-in-place language barriers denied this progress to Latinos.
Language barriers denied 9 million Spanish-speaking citizens the right to vote.
MALDEF, through a series of lawsuits, house testimony, and advocacy, led the charge with support from the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project to complete the 1965 Voters Right Act.
“In 1975, [Edward] Roybal (of Los Angeles) and his House colleagues, Herman Badillo of the Bronx and Barbara Jordan of Houston, introduced legislation requiring bilingual election materials in areas where Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans or Alaskan natives made up more than 5 percent of the voting-age population.”MALDEF
The 1975 Votings Rights Act Extension was signed by President Ford. It forced areas to have any changes in their voting laws and voting rolls purging to be approved by the federal government if less than 50 percent of eligible voters had registered or voted in the 1972 election.
In the years since, Brennan Center has consistently found that states previously covered by the preclearance requirement have engaged in significant efforts to disenfranchise voters.
My interpretation of the constitution is that it is a living and breathing document. 1975 is the proper year to celebrate the protected passage of the rights of all races and ethnic groups of people obtaining, except the imprisoned, the right and protections to vote.