The Board of Elections would use missing tests, elusive test hours, and discriminatory practices to stop many Latinos from voting in El Barrio, the Bronx, and Brooklyn.
by Juan Cartagena
In New York City and elsewhere, access to bilingual voter ballots is a right—and the law. But that right did not come easy, and it’s not one we should take for granted.
Consider the long road to empower Latino and other voters:
–New York did not fully allow men of color to vote until after the 1870s.
–Soon afterwards, New York debated whether the immigrants of that time were intellectually capable of participating in democracy. By 1921 English literacy tests were required for voting in order to keep Southern and Eastern European immigrants from voting and gaining power.
–By the 1940s and 1950s, with the Latino population increasing, the English literacy test requirement prevented many Spanish literate citizens from voting, largely Puerto Ricans then. The Board of Elections would use missing tests, elusive test hours, and discriminatory practices to stop many Latinos from voting in El Barrio, the Bronx, and Brooklyn.
–Congress responded to this discrimination by exempting many Puerto Ricans from an English-only literacy test in 1965. Years later, federal courts concluded what every Puerto Rican and Latino immigrant knew: that you cannot fully participate in the political process unless you fully understand the written ballot. Thus, bilingual elections started in New York City and spread throughout the country to reach all Latino voters and voters of other language minority groups.
Additional barriers existed. Laws that cancelled voter registration if voters failed to vote in four years were outlawed in 1993 after lawyers proved that Latinos and blacks were three times more likely to be cancelled than whites. In the 1990s Congress finally required government agencies to offer voter registration after the United States fell well behind other Western democracies in voter participation.
Today additional barriers still remain:
–aggressive and discriminatory criminal justice policies have created historically high prisoner rates in the country with more Latinos losing their vote than whites under laws that prohibit prisoners and parolees from voting;
–unnecessary delays in processing naturalization applications result in less political power for Latinos;
–and anti-immigrant sentiment targets emerging Latino populations that become subject to intimidation practices at polling sites.
On Election Day, New York City has 30,000 poll workers and 7,000 machines in over 6,000 election districts. Only a handful of voting rights activists and lawyers monitor compliance with the laws that so many Latinos fought to establish. Voting is, therefore, more than just a local contest between deserving individuals. It is an affirmation of our community’s struggle for inclusion in the political world. It acknowledges our past and affirms that our future will continue to eliminate every barrier to full participation.
Juan Cartagena is the General Counsel & Vice President for Advocacy for the Community Service Society.