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New laws could make it harder for Latinos to vote

As the Latino and African American electorates have grown, so have laws across the country that could potentially prevent minorities from casting their vote.
27 Sep 2016 – 11:33 AM EDT

Around 7:00 p.m. on March 23, Guatemala native Aracely Calderón showed up at the Salvation Army office in Phoenix to cast her ballot in the Arizona presidential primary election.

To her surprise, the 56-year-old found long lines, of some 700 people.

But she stuck out the long wait. "I'm from Guatemala and I never thought I'd get to see the day where I would have the right to vote," Calderon told the Arizona Republic.

She finally cast her vote after midnight.

Arizona is one of more than a dozen states that has changed its voting laws and procedures since the 2012 election. One of those changes led to reduced numbers of polling places in Maricopa County -- by 70 percent since 2012 -- to cut costs, which can explain the unprecedented lines during the primary. Now, with the Nov. 8 presidential election approaching, experts warn that the laws across the country could make it harder for Latinos to vote for the next U.S. president.

"I think it's going to be a very complicated election," said Katherine Culliton-Gonzalez, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney and voting rights expert. "It's been more and more obvious that Latinos have been targeted in the last few years."

A wave of restrictive voting laws

A May 2016 report from the National Association of Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) found that 8 million Latino voters live in areas where restrictive voting laws have been passed since 2012. Those laws could impede around 875,000 Latinos from voting nationwide, the report found.

In 2013, the Supreme Court dismantled part of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination in voting. The Shelby County v. Holder decision allowed states to change election law and procedures without federal government approval, making it harder for the government to prevent potentially discriminatory practices from going into effect.

That has allowed more than a dozen states to pass laws making it harder to vote, including Texas, Arizona and Ohio.

A total of 14 states will have new voting restrictions in place in November, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. These include photo ID requirements to vote, reduced early voting and proof of citizenship to register to vote, among other measures. Many voters are unaware these new laws exist.

Lawmakers have argued that these state laws are necessary to protect against voter fraud. But experts say that extremely few fraud cases exist, while there's evidence some states have targeted minority voters.

"I think the timing here is not a coincidence," said Dale Ho, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Voting Rights Project. "In recent presidential elections, the most important trend we've seen is a massive increase in participation from voters of color."

Ho also noted that Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach - the architect of Arizona's controversial SB1070 immigration law - was the "mastermind" behind several state laws requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote.

"These laws are really an expression of xenophobia," said Ho. "Immigrants aren't coming to this country to steal elections."

Plus, in-person voter fraud is "practically nonexistent," says Culliton-Gonzalez. "You're more likely to be struck by lightning." Multiple studies have backed this up.

Meanwhile, Arizona wasn’t the only state that experienced problems affecting Latinos during this year’s primaries. Tens of thousands of Brooklyn, New York, voters - the majority of whom were Hispanic – were purged from the voter roll. Local officials claim it was a mistake.

How Latinos could be affected in November

Because of some state laws requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote, first-time Hispanic voters could be especially affected.

"Voters are faced with potentially being asked to prove their identity as a U.S. citizen over and over again in certain states," said Joanna Cuevas Ingram, associate counsel at Latino Justice PRLDEF, a nonpartisan national civil rights and legal defense fund. "That can be very demoralizing, particularly in states where they only provide this information in English."

"The more difficult that it is to register, and the more steps required prior to the actual casting of a ballot, the less likely it becomes that lower-propensity voters will persevere and vote successfully," says the NALEO report.

But there's good news.

In the past several months, some state laws making it harder to register and vote have been blocked by the courts, including in Georgia, North Dakota, and North Carolina. Texas also had its strict voter ID law struck down, and authorities there must allow voters to use alternatives to prove their identity. Courts also ordered Alabama, Kansas and Wisconsin to make changes to their restrictive voting laws.

Myrna Pérez, the deputy director of the Brennan Center's Democracy Program, says Latino voters should not be deterred.

"It's only by demonstrating our political strength and our political interest that politicians are going to be mindful of the political strength that Latinos assert," she said.

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