Just days after Rep. John Lewis’s death, President Donald Trump has chosen to honor his legacy of fighting for voting rights by doubling down on his racist and unconstitutional attempts to effectively disenfranchise voters of color whose strength continues to grow. With so much at stake in this critical election year, Congress must act now to protect the integrity of the census and ensure fair representation for all.
The latest executive order out of the White House is devious in its efforts to suppress the vote. Instead of directly limiting access to the ballot box, the order will weaken political power by undermining the constitutional mandate that the “whole number of persons in each state” be used to determine the number of members each state receives to represent them in the House of Representatives. By excluding undocumented immigrants from the census, states with large Latinx populations stand to lose representation in Congress, the natural result of which will be to diminish the political voice of Latinx communities and strengthen that of predominantly white areas. All of this flies in the face of what the Supreme Court previously recognized as the “fundamental principle of representative government,” that there be “equal representation for equal numbers of people.”
Trump is not alone in his insidious attempts to legalize unconstitutional practices that would limit the political voice of communities of color. His executive order is just the latest in a series of discriminatory actions targeting Latinx voters, which are intended to dilute our voting strength.
Since the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act in its 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, efforts to suppress and weaken the Latinx vote have only accelerated. Over the last decade, states like Arizona and Texas have implemented onerous voter identification and registration requirements that would make it more difficult for Latinx voters to cast a ballot, and Texas has repeatedly passed statewide redistricting plans that courts have found were intended to weaken Latinx political power. Indeed, Trump’s latest efforts to weaken the voting strength of Latinx communities can be traced back to a series of attempts to exclude undocumented immigrants from the census that were rejected by our courts.
These tactics are a direct response to demographic trends that threaten the political status quo. Today, no single racial or ethnic group alone represents a majority of the nation’s under-18 population. The growth of a youthful minority population, driven by immigration and birth rates for Asian Americans and Latinos, is juxtaposed with an aging and declining white electorate. The COVID-19 pandemic has only underscored the nation’s demographic changes, making clear that people of color are the country’s front-line workers and economic engine. Communities of color will be casting a ballot in November on the heels of an economic recession and racial/ethnic disparities in coronavirus infections and deaths. And given the current social circumstances, we can only imagine that the historic growth in Latinx voter we saw in 2018 – who in eight states cast, on average, 96 percent more ballots than in 2014 – will grow this year.
These are precisely the communities that Trump has sought time and again to marginalize and block from exercising their right to vote and elect their candidates of choice. The 2020 election will determine control of the White House, U.S. Congress, as well as state legislatures across the country. And as we move into the 2021 redistricting cycle these state legislatures will draw new political boundaries that will determine what federal representation looks like for the next decade in 34 states, including important battleground states with large Latinx populations like Florida, Georgia, Nevada, and Texas. Elsewhere, in states like Arizona and California, independent redistricting commissions will draw the lines that determine political power with limited, if any, Latinx voices.
Trump’s latest attack on Latinx political power fits squarely with our nation’s history of discrimination. November provides a proximate opportunity to not only safeguard our democracy, but awaken to the power of voters of color by retiring failed leadership.
We have seen how some politicians view voter suppression in communities of color as essential for their success. To counteract this, and ensure that all Americans can exercise their fundamental right to vote, significant resources must be put into mobilizing and protecting voters of color on election day. But a win in November will not be enough.
Recent history has shown that our democracy is in desperate need of greater protections against the proliferation of and changing nature of contemporary voter suppression. Executive orders and local or state electoral changes abound serve as blatant attacks on our constitution, which must be stopped in their tracks. An essential step toward that goal is for Congress to correct the Supreme Court’s erroneous decision in Shelby County v. Holder by passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Act now. Without such protection, our very democracy is at stake.
Nicholas Espíritu teaches voting rights at UCLA School of Law and represented Latino voters at the Supreme Court seeking to stop exclusion of undocumented immigrants from apportionment. Sonja Diaz is a practicing civil rights attorney and the founding director of the UCLA Latino Policy & Politics Initiative.
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