The 1975 Voting Rights Expansion Act
As President Gerald Ford stood in the Rose Garden on August 6th and signed the 1975 Voting Rights Expansion Act he stated “The right to vote is at the very foundation of our American system. There must be no question whatsoever about the right of each eligible American to participate in our electoral process.”
Despite this well-intentioned sentiment, the reality of American politics, past, and present differs, as there have always been major disagreements over who is and should be “eligible” to vote. It’s much more complicated than any U.S citizen over the age of 18 is eligible to vote. Yet even these most basic guidelines had to be fought for. For example, establishing the voting age as 18 instead of 21 was a topic of debate during the Vietnam war as protesters chanted, "old enough to fight, old enough to vote." There have always been obstacles to prevent certain groups from voting, whether it be property ownership requirements or literacy tests. The liberties many eligible voters are granted today had to be fought for.
Throughout American history, there have been major victories in establishing voting rights for those who had been denied entrance to the ballot box. Of these victories the first that may come to mind may be the passage of the 15th and 19th amendments, granting the right to vote to African American men, and women respectively. While both these amendments were astronomical accomplishments in the pursuit of voting rights for all American citizens it is as if they need an asterisk placed beside them in history books. With these victories came new strategies to block access to voting booths and new methods of voter discrimination emerged. These strategies of blocking voters still exist today and have recently seen a new surge in popularity. Unfortunately for many people of color, the benefits of the passage of these amendments were not felt until the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. However, for many non-English speaking American citizens justice didn’t come until ten years later with the 1975 Voting Rights expansion act.
The 1965 voting rights act was historic and a turning point in helping ensure people of color could participate in the electoral process, one of its primary goals was to enforce the 15th amendment, which states “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The 1965 voting rights act pushed back on the racial discrimination African Americans in the South were facing when trying to vote, like being asked to recite the Constitution to be allowed to vote, a standard many voters would fail to meet no matter their race. This act outlawed discriminatory practices such as literacy tests and poll taxes. Once again the passage of the 1965 voting rights act was a major victory for the civil rights movement, but many “language minorities” including Spanish speaking Latinos were still left out. After 1965 new strategies to block non-white voters were implemented and this included non-English speaking voters as well. In many counties registration and election, materials were printed in English, serving as a de facto literacy test for those who did not speak English. It wasn’t until 1975 that a crucial expansion in the Voting Rights Act changed the game for Latinx voting rights.
The Atlantic recounts the story of Paul Morales, who ran for mayor of Persall, Texas, and represented La Raza Unida. In the 1973 mayoral election, Morales defeated Anglo candidate Buddy White by a narrow margin of 65 votes. After the election 200 Chicano voters were subpoenaed for “election irregularities” but interestingly no white voters were questioned. As a result, 100 Chicano votes were thrown out for being marked with an “X” instead of a signature by illiterate voters. This cost Morales the election as his 65 vote lead was cast out and Buddy White was elected mayor. Sixteen Chicano voters, under pressure from the county, pleaded guilty to election-law violations. Instances such as these have a negative impact on voter turnout. For the Latinx population in Texas intimidation and other barriers to voting discouraged or even prevented many from voting. This was also the case for many Latinos in the U.S. The situation was not unique in Texas. In 1975, more than half a million Puerto Ricans of voting age residing in New York City who had been educated in American schools, could not meet the English-literacy requirement for voting in New York as all of their instruction had been in Spanish.
The 1975 Voting Rights expansion act sought to protect “language minorities” from discriminatory practices meant to block or dissuade them from voting. This act now required that registration and election materials be printed in languages other than English in counties where more than 5% of the voting population was not white. This act not only benefited the Latinx population but also included protections and increased language access for Asians, and some Indigenous people. This act also authorized federal oversight of elections in counties where less than 50% of eligible non-white voters were registered.
Despite all the progress made throughout the decades, there has been a huge resurgence of attempts to disenfranchise eligible voters. Several states, many of which were targeted directly by the 1965 Voting rights act, have introduced or passed legislation that would make voting harder. Many of these bills aim to reduce provisions that make voting easier and more accessible, such as early voting, absentee voting, and mail-in voting. Many also include provisions to increase voter ID requirements and voter roll purges.
All the effort put in to stop certain groups from voting, reveals a hidden truth. Our voices, and our votes are powerful. If you are eligible to vote it’s imperative to do so. Our voices matter and we can use the power of our vote to make them heard and to highlight issues important to our communities and elect officials who reflect our values. Become one in a million and register to vote today if you have not done so already and join a coalition of empowered Latinas across the country.
Check out the One Million Latinas strong website for information about voting in English and Spanish.
Unidas en la lucha,
One in a million