March 2, 2007

Lawyer details voter hardships

Nina Perales, an attorney at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) and a lead counsel in the Supreme Court battle over the 2003 Texas Congressional redistricting plan, spoke Tuesday at the Law School on current hardships facing voters in the American Southwest.

The most disenfranchising issue, she said, is an Arizona law that requires voters to show proof of citizenship to register to vote and to display ID when voting.

The requirement was part of a 2004 ballot initiative in Arizona restricting illegal immigrants’ access to social services, Perales said, even though there have been “one, maybe two” documented cases of illegal immigrants trying to vote in that state.

Between 15,000 and 20,000 voter registration applications have been rejected since the law passed due to insufficient documentation–-registrants must provide a photocopy of their birth certificate or naturalization certificate. Perales speculated that many more would-be voters have not bothered applying for registration due to the requirements.

The requirements have also ended the days of door-to-door voter registration or voter registration tables in public places. “The League of Women Voters is done registering people to vote,” she said.

Perales said that government-issued identification requirements constitute a poll tax, since voters must pay for the ID.

“We don’t require people to vote in this country with a stack of papers,” she said. “Now we’re back to 1950s Mississippi.”

MALDEF was founded in 1968 by a group of Mexican-American lawyers in Texas to fight the segregation of Hispanics.

As late as the early 1970s, many county clerks in Texas refused to register Hispanics to vote, and political parties held “white primaries” in which only whites could vote. Gerrymandering elections and poll taxes were employed to dilute the Hispanic vote, she said.

“Much like the experiences of African Americans in the South, Mexican Americans were excluded from public life in the Southwest,” she said.