Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Nina Perales 2/27

On February 27, Nina Perales spoke to a large group of interested students about her work regarding voting rights in the United States. Her talk focused particularly on her work on behalf of MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. After a brief discussion of the roots of her organization, Perales described briefly the history of discrimination against Mexican-Americans in the voting rights arena. This record includes denial of voter registration, a poll tax, and outright intimidation at polling places.

According to Perales, the organization tackles two primary issues related to voting rights. First, she and her colleagues endeavor to register Mexican-Americans to vote and to encourage voting despite opposing efforts to limit their ballot-casting. Perales raised the important example of Proposition 200 in Arizona. Touted as a law designed to thwart abuse of social services by undocumented immigrants, the Proposition included a new provision that would require potential voters to provide documentary proof of citizenship in order to be registered to vote. Under this law, over 15,000 applicants we

In addition, Perales and MALDEF oppose schemes that “dilute or diminish” the weight of a Mexican-American’s vote. As background, Perales noted that vote dilution is amplified within the context of other social ills that disproportionately affect the Mexican-American community such as poverty, housing discrimination, segregated schools, low education rates, language isolation, and cultural exclusion. One such “dilution scheme” is gerrymandering.

Perales herself litigated the Texas case involving a 2003 redistricting plan that was broadly viewed as favoring the Republican agenda by altering the distribution of Latino voters in the state. Perales noted that although the plan was devised to protect the threatened seat of Anglo-preferred Henry Bonilla, a Latino Congressperson, the racially polarized voting patterns of the Latino population demonstrated an extreme lack of support for Bonilla. Following a drawn-out procedural progression, Perales joined six other parties representing various groups in presenting claims before the Supreme Court. The plan was successfully struck down.

After Perales’ remarks, students seized the opportunity to ask questions.

In response to a question about overhauling the district system, Perales cautioned the crowd: “I don’t think you can never take the politics out of redistricting.” Another student wondered whether Bonilla’s unpopularity among his own racial group should raise doubt about the existence of racially polarized voting. In response, Perales noted: “You don’t look at the color of the candidate, you look at whether the electorate is divided along racial lines in which candidates they’re supporting.” Furthermore, Bonilla opposed Latino candidates in all of his elections.

One student drew a comparison between Latino voters and Chasidic Jews, asking why Latinos constitute a protected class while other insular minorities do not. Perales invoked Hernandez v. Texas and the Voting Rights Act (1965), which recognized Latinos largely because of their history of discrimination.

Perales closed with a colorful image that described her position in a nonpartisan group, working alongside democratic and republican groups: “Litigating redistricting is like driving on I-85 between two Semis [in a compact car] – “you don’t know who you’re going to get squished by.”