The recent flurry of state efforts to weaken the 1995 U.S. Voting Rights Act brings back memories of my parents’ experience with voting since coming to America as part of the great immigration of the Manong Generation during the 1920-30s.
When I was a pre-schooler in the early 1930s, my father Ceferino, a former sakada plantation worker in Hawaii, was operating a farm labor camp in California. My mother Apolonia, a teacher in the Philippines who came to America to further her education, was a wife, mother, and bookkeeper for the labor camp. They had come to realize they would be settling in America rather than returning to the Philippines as originally planned. Like other Filipinos of the Manong Generation, their dreams and aspirations of succeeding in the United States and then triumphantly returning to their homelandhad been dashed by their treatment in an unfriendly America. During those years Filipinos were considered to be Philippine nationals. Not only were they subjected to discrimination in the workplace, housing, and education without recourse, they also could not vote — nor did they have a pathway to citizenship. Despite these roadblocks, my parents retained their belief in the promise of America, especially with the increased growth of their American born family. They longed for the day when– like their eight children – they would be able to attain the full rights of citizenship, including voting.
World War II resulted in Filipinos being regarded as America’s “brave brown brothers” rather than being called “brown monkeys”. After the war, the positive image of Filipinos gave rise to legislation that enabled my parents to buy property and to apply for U.S. citizenship. After long days tending to the more than one hundred Filipino farm workers at the camp, they spent countless nights pouring over written materials studying for the citizenship test — their children often helping with sample questions.They were so proud after finally being sworn in as American citizens, they actively urged other Filipinos to follow suit. For the remainder of their lives, my parents faithfully exercised their constitutional right to vote — never missing a primary or national election.
It hasn’t always been easy for Filipinos and other minorities to vote. As noted earlier, Filipinos in America were not afforded a pathway to citizenship. For many decades in the Deep South, African Americans were systematically denied the right to vote through discriminatory mechanisms such as requiring payment of exorbitant poll taxes and requiring the recitation of the Constitution. Finally in 1965, the enactment of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) made many of these tactics illegal and provided protections to assure the right to vote. Lest we forget — passage of the VRA 49 years ago came about only after the brutality and violence inflicted on African American citizens as they protested state laws infringing on their civil rights.
But even the VRA hasn’t stopped recent state efforts to disenfranchise minority voters. During the 2012 presidential election, for example, voters in predominantly minority districts in Florida had to stand in line for six to eight hours because their voting precincts were suddenly closed. And in late June 2013 the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), declared Section 5 unconstitutional. That section provided that states (mostly in the Deep South) with a historical and demonstrated record of suppressing voting for its citizens must obtain pre-clearance from the Department of Justice before implementing state laws affecting the constitutionally protected right to vote. Following the SCOTUS decision, states like Texas, North and South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi immediately pushed through legislation that would severely restrict minorities from voting.
There may be a happy ending to this story. On July 25 Department of Justice (DOJ) Attorney General Eric Holder announced he was directing the U.S. District Court in Texas to preside over efforts that would require the state of Texas to obtain DOJ pre-clearance before implementing its new voting laws. The DOJ is expected to institute similar proceedings against other states considering changes to their voting laws.
Let’s hope that the Department of Justice succeeds in protecting the peoples’ right to vote. But I wonder how my parents and others who have suffered through efforts to suppress their votes feel about America’s continuing obsession with limiting the right to vote to only a portion of its citizens.