Latinos are targets of perilous partisan purges

Published Sept. 23, 2012

This past spring, Florida kicked off a dubious, large-scale attempt to remove registered voters from the voter rolls. The state mailed letters to more than 2,600 registered voters proclaiming that they would be purged unless they showed proof of citizenship within 30 days. Government officials, however, used deeply flawed data, and many of these "noncitizens" turned out to be eligible voters. In Miami, where most of those who received notice letters live, more than 98 percent of 562 people who responded proved that they were indeed U.S. citizens.

Even sketchier about Florida's purge list — which the state eventually abandoned after multiple lawsuits, agreeing to halt the effort — is who it targeted. Sixty-one percent of letter recipients were Latino. With the burden of proof put on them to respond to a mailing that could have been lost, mailed to a wrong address or inadvertently ignored, those citizens stood to have their voting rights easily ripped away.

It's no accident that the purge effort especially undermined Latino voting participation. Composing 26 percent of eligible voters in Florida and 10 percent in the country overall, Latino citizens are a giant within the state's electorate.

What's more, eligible Latino voters in Florida have the collective power to swing elections, with numbers amounting to nine times the 2008 presidential election margin of victory. As their numbers and influence have increased, state lawmakers have pursued a range of policies that could block millions of Latino citizens from participating in our democracy. This trend, as a new Advancement Project report shows, isn't unique to Florida. It's happening nationwide.

As of the 2010 Census, there were more than 21 million Latino citizens of voting age in the United States. Yet despite their significant numbers, the Latino community has not fully exercised its voting power. When you factor in the more than half of voting-age Latino citizens who were either unregistered or did not vote in 2010, as well as Latinos who became eligible for naturalized citizenship and have turned 18 since then, 19.3 million Latinos are eligible to register to vote this year.

Also this year, as if acting in concert, 23 Republican-led state governments enacted voting policies that disproportionately affect the Latino community. These measures largely target naturalized citizens and, all told, could impede more than 10 million Latino citizens from registering and voting. We are nonpartisan and very concerned about the voters, as our voting rights should not be manipulated by politicians for partisan gain.

Following Florida's lead, 15 other states are planning to create lists of registered voters to purge from the rolls using inaccurate immigration data. Then there are restrictive voter ID laws in nine states, which generally ban common types of ID used for voting (such as utility bills, bank statements and veteran ID cards), allowing politicians to decide that only very limited forms (such as an unexpired driver's license or passport) are acceptable. Not so coincidentally, an estimated 16 percent of Latinos of voting age do not possess these strict forms of ID, compared to 6 percent of their white counterparts.

Several states have also adopted laws requiring citizens to show proof of citizenship at the time of voter registration. That makes it tough to sign up for voter registration drives, which Latinos use at nearly double the rate of whites, for those of us who don't carry legal "papers" in our pockets.

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Election Day is a time when we are all supposed to be equal, with the same say in the voting booth, whether rich or poor and regardless of race. Yet by raising new barriers that disparately threaten Latino citizens' right to vote, these policies promote just the opposite. It's important to make sure there is no fraud in our elections, and we all want accurate voter rolls, but it's wrong for politicians to manipulate democracy for their own political gain and that's all these laws do.

Instead of restricting the votes of eligible citizens, our government should be working to increase their participation with elections that are free, fair and accessible for all. At stake are the voting rights of millions of Latino citizens but also the most fundamental element of our democracy.

Katherine Culliton-González, far left, is senior attorney and director of voter protection at Advancement Project. Diana Sen is senior counsel for Latino Justice PRLDEF.