Behind the Lettuce Curtain
U.S. Supreme Court decision on Voting Rights Act case may affect Latinos in Monterey County.
Thursday, May 14, 2009
The U.S. Supreme Court may strike a section of the Voting Rights Act intended to protect minority voters, in Monterey County and elsewhere, from discrimination.
While considering a lawsuit filed by a Texas municipal utility district, justices questioned the constitutionality of Section 5, part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which requires jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination to get preclearance from the Department of Justice before moving polling places or drawing voter districts.
Monterey County is one of only a few preclearance counties outside of the South – because of its history of denying representation to Latino voters, and its high percentage of non-English speakers. Although more Latinos now hold local offices, some civil rights advocates say the provision is still essential.
“I believe that in a county like Monterey County there is still a need because of language,” says Carlos Ramos, president of League of United Latin American Citizens “Monterrey” Council.
Ramos points to last year’s decision by the Monterey County Board of Education to eliminate at-large elections and create five trustee areas for Monterey Peninsula College. He adds that MPC’s at-large elections left working-class minority communities in Marina and Seaside represented by affluent Pebble Beach and Carmel residents.
In 2006, Ramos acted as a spokeman for a group of Latinos who sued Monterey County over two slow-growth land use initiatives, arguing that the petitions to put the measures on the ballot must be circulated in Spanish. However, the Ninth Circuit Court determined ballot initiatives don’t have to be translated into minority languages in order to comply with the Voting Rights Act.
Years earlier, in 1988, Supervisor Simón Salinas, who was then running for a seat on the Salinas City Council, cited the Voting Right Act when he successfully sued the city to force it to hold district elections. Even today, Salinas says DOJ supervision is needed to ensure minority groups aren’t disenfranchised at the polls.
Monterey County Registrar of Voters Linda Tulett says she’ll continue to provide election materials in Spanish and English, whichever way the Supreme Court rules on Section 5. “I’m still going to do all of that regardless of whether or not I have to get the Department of Justice to bless it,” she says.
Although Tulett says eliminating preclearance wouldn’t change how she runs elections, Salinas says he doesn’t want to relinquish federal oversight.
“As much as I think that we got people committed to doing the right thing, there could be others that don’t,” he says.
The Supreme Court is expected to make a decision in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder by the end of June.