Will America's Minorities Make It to the Voting Booth?

Along with fears that Trump fans will keep blacks and Hispanics from casting ballots, some states have closed polling stations or demanded expensive IDs from voters.

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File photo: A man wearing a Black Lives Matter sweatshirt in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C., October 10, 2015.
File photo: A man wearing a Black Lives Matter sweatshirt in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C., October 10, 2015.Credit: Evan Vucci, AP

DALLAS, TX - A group of affluent Dallas residents emerged Sunday from the large downtown cathedral, dressed in their finest, and shook the priest’s hand, preparing themselves for a fateful week in United States history.

A middle-aged man stuck an American flag on his Segway and drove through the city’s empty streets toward the noisy cafes of uptown Dallas. Conversations, mainly devoted to Donald Trump’s chances of winning, also turned to an issue that has become more prominent in local newspapers and publications put out by human rights groups: the difficulties facing minorities on their way to polling stations.

Fifty years after American rights activists paid with their lives so that blacks would be enfranchised, the issue of minority voting rights has again become relevant and could deeply impact Tuesday’s elections.

Trump was sharply criticized recently for warning that the elections were rigged, and pundits are worried that his supporters will exploit his call to monitor voting as an opportunity to take the law into their own hands and to arrive at polling stations in black and Hispanic neighborhoods in order to intimidate voters. Some of the most extreme hate groups in the country operate in Texas, including a few branches of the Ku Klux Klan, substantiating the concerns of minority groups about violence on Election Day.

Los Angeles residents lining up for early voting, Oct. 30, 2016.Credit: Reed Soxon/AP

However, even before Trump started agitating his supporters with claims of a “stolen election,” Republican legislators in many states sought to make the voting process more difficult by means of several initiatives, such as demanding that voters show up with certain identifying documents. Such reform is essential, said the politicians, in order to ensure the integrity of the elections.

For their part, Democrats and a good number of human rights organizations have warned that this demand mainly hurts the rights of poor, black, Hispanic and other minority voters.

Until recently, states in the Deep South, such as Texas, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arizona, South Carolina, Virginia and others were prohibited from implementing any drastic changes in laws regarding election procedures, based on the Section 5 preclearance requirement in the 1965 Voting Rights Act. To institute any changes, these states had to prove to the U.S. attorney general that minority rights would not be infringed.

However, that provision was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013, and southern states have effected changes that could indeed impact the ability of minority groups to cast their votes.

Far-flung stations

According to a report published a few days ago, since the Supreme Court ruling southern states have shut down hundreds of polling stations, mostly in black and Hispanic neighborhoods. This step has the strongest effect on the poor, who cannot afford to lose a day’s work by traveling far in order to fulfill their democratic duty.

Texas heads the list with 400 closed stations, there are 200 more in Arizona, and 100 were shuttered in Louisiana, with dozens more in other, neighboring states.

Another report, by the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, determined that dozens of counties in Texas had violated the law by not providing voters with relevant materials in Spanish.

“If Spanish speakers don’t even have information on how to register for voting, how would you notify them of significant changes in voting procedures?” the author of the report told The Texas Tribune on Friday.

Disadvantaged and poor people in other states also suffer from a shortage of polling stations.

“I won’t be voting,” declared a Latino resident of Phoenix, Arizona, which is a swing state in these elections. "It used to be a cowboy town here. These white people, they smile at you and say hi, but secretly they want us all gone, that is why Trump will win in Arizona. In the rich white neighborhoods, they have many polling stations, but in the Hispanic areas? Not so much."

Despite having a lot to say about politicians in his state and his worries about a Trump victory, the man insisted that he won’t be voting – “I have to work, I can’t waste all day,” he said – not even to block the election of the Joe Arpaio, whom he hates. Arpaio is a local sheriff known for his deprecating attitude toward Hispanics.

In primaries held earlier this year in Arizona, residents of poorer areas had to wait for more than five hours in oppressive desert heat in order to vote, and there is concern that this will be repeated on Tuesday. One local paper, The Arizona Republic, reported that residents in low-income Maricopa County, in which Joe Arpaio has been elected sheriff again and again, some voters will have to walk more than four kilometers to cast a ballot.

Distance is not a problem, however, for more affluent residents who can drive to polling stations and can also afford to lose a day’s work. Less affluent people need to use public transportation and then wait in long lines in crowded polling stations.

All told, 60 booths serve 1.25 million people in Maricopa – a sharp drop from the 200 that were in place in the 2012 elections and the 400 available in 2008.

ID issues

In addition to the reduction in the number of polling stations, human rights groups representing Hispanics and blacks point out that the above-mentioned legislation, initially passed in 14 states and requiring identifying documentation, will make it even more difficult for minorities and the poor to vote in the elections. This is a problematic issue since the IDs specified often cost money.

Moreover, in Texas, for example, there are not to many options when it comes to which documentation is acceptable: A license to carry a gun is acceptable but a student card is not.

In some of the states that have passed problematic legislation in terms of the minority vote, Democrats managed to overturn the laws ahead of Election Day. For example, in October a district court in Wisconsin ruled that a law from 2011 that shortened the early voting period to two weeks instead of a month, and severely limited the number voting stations in certain locales, would indeed curtail and suppress voting among less well-to-do citizens. The court ruled that the law particularly hurt Hispanic and black neighborhoods in cities such as Milwaukee, where early voting is popular.

The campaign against this legislation was originally driven by stories of people in Wisconsin who were unable to vote. In one case, a resident born in a concentration camp in war-torn Germany could not produce an original birth certificate. In another case a woman who had lost her hands could not receive an identifying document since she couldn’t sign a form, even though she arrived to cast her ballot with her daughter and someone with power of attorney.

Todd Allbaugh, an assistant to a Republican legislator in Wisconsin raised a furor when he resigned from office, claiming on Facebook that he had done so after witnessing Republicans talking about limiting minority voting.

"I was in the closed Senate Republican Caucus when the final round of multiple voter ID bills were being discussed. A handful of the GOP senators were giddy about the ramifications and literally singled out the prospects of suppressing minority and college voters. "

"Think about that for a minute," Allbaugh wrote. "Elected officials planning and happy to help deny a fellow American's constitutional right to vote in order to increase their own chances to hang onto power."

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