Black and Latino Leaders in Phoenix Call on Congress to Restore Voting Rights Act

Black and Latino leaders in Phoenix think voting rights for minorities in Arizona are about to take a step back now that Arizona and eight other states no longer need federal approval on new voting laws.

They may not want to hold their breath for what they're demanding, though -- that Congress fix the section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that was struck down yesterday by the U.S. Supreme Court.

See also:
Supreme Court: Voting Rights Act Can't Make Arizona Get Feds' Approval on Laws

Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, heading up the press conference at her El Portal restaurant, called the struck-down section "the most powerful civil rights mechanism in current law," and explained that it has "always been our backstop . . . when we think we're being discriminated against."

When the Voting Rights Act initially was passed, a handful of states were selected for scrutiny by a "coverage formula," which took into account things like whether states had voter tests, as well as levels of voter registration and turnout.

Arizona was selected added to the list of states in 1975, so all of the changes in Arizona voting laws since then have been sent to the Justice Department for "pre-clearance."

It's been more than a decade since the attorney general had a Voting Rights Act objection to a change in Arizona voting law. The most recent, in May 2003, dealt with changes to school-board elections in Coconino County. In 2002, however, the Justice Department claimed the proposed legislative redistricting plan appeared to be unfair to minority voters.

Democratic State Senator Steve Gallardo insisted that the safeguard, requiring Justice Department approval, prevented lawmakers from trying to pass laws restrictive toward minority voters. Other changes, he said, were quietly withdrawn without a formal Justice Department rejection.

Gallardo, along with Democratic State Representative Martin Quezada, argued that the elections bill recently signed by Governor Jan Brewer, House Bill 2305, is exactly why this provision existed. Pastor Warren Stewart -- a black city council candidate -- cited the bill as yet another example of seeing voter rights "assaulted."

Among other things, that new law says local elections officials "may" take people off the permanent early-voting list if they don't vote in the two most recent elections. Another part prevents any worker of a political committee from collecting early-voting ballots and turning them in to elections officials -- a method that was used heavily in the most recent general election by Latino activists.

Gallardo said Arizona is the "poster child" of why the Justice Department should be approving state election laws, and said it's "somewhat disgraceful" for politicians here to celebrate the Supreme Court's decision.

The Supreme Court ruling says the "formula" that decides which states get scrutinized and which don't is unfair and outdated. Thus, these black and Latino leaders want Congress to make a new formula.

The problem is, these people are asking for Congress to do something, which they acknowledge is a monumental challenge. (Attorney Antonio Bustamante noted that the Senate "can't even get 60 votes to decide if we all can go to the bathroom.")

National press reports, including those in the Washington Post and USA Today, have already indicated that it's unlikely Congress will establish a new formula.

Other sections of the Voting Rights Act remain in place, so someone alleging to be a victim of changes in voting laws can still sue in court.

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Follow Matthew Hendley on Twitter at @MatthewHendley.