In the town of Islip, New York, voting is done at-large, which means there aren't any districts. The whole town, which is primarily white, votes for all the elected officials together, making it difficult for Latino voters to get representation in city government. So, they're suing.
Often, we talk about the big cases that involve gerrymandering, voter identification and redistricting, but a lot of legal action around voting actually happens in small cities and towns. And a growing number of those cases are being brought by Latino voters. Over the last 10 years, Latinos have initiated twice as many legal actions as all other groups combined.
For Ana Flores, it's the little things, potholes, broken streetlights, a swimming pool.
“Marco Polo (laughter) we play those games, splashing water – literally anything.”
Flores is 21 and Latina. She lives in Brentwood, a Hispanic neighborhood within the mostly white town of Islip on Long Island. The town board, all white, closed her pool. Islip said it needed to pay for repairs in other areas. Those parts happened to be wealthier and whiter.
“So we signed petitions, and we wanted answers on what happened. No, we were told. It's closed, and there's no money. Most of us have lost hope in government.”
Flores says her vote is diluted because Islip holds elections at-large, meaning there aren't districts in Islip. The whole town votes for all elected officials, which makes it hard for Latinos from her neighborhood to win elections. So she and her neighbors sued.
Across the country, other Latinos are doing the same, whether it's because of what they say are unfair redistricting plans or onerous voter ID laws. Fred Brewington, one of the attorneys bringing the suit in Islip, says that on top of a growing population, many Latinos are also besieged with poverty, unequal education and, in Brentwood specifically, the violent street gang MS-13.
“Some of the issues that we're seeing in terms of inappropriate funding, no place for the young people to go, those are things that a township the size of Islip should be providing to a community that they should have recognized. But what they decided to do was to continue to push them down, to underrepresent them and essentially ignore them,” Brewington says.
Nationally, starting in 2006 and every year since, more voting rights cases have been started by Hispanic voters than African-Americans. Over the last 10 years, Latinos have initiated twice as many legal actions than all other groups combined. But five years ago, courts started turning these types of lawsuits away.
“And I'm afraid that that shutdown is going to increase in the future,” says Morgan Kousser, who teaches political science and history at Caltech. He says after a 2013 Supreme Court decision called Shelby County v. Holder, there were fewer restrictions on states, and lawsuits became a lot more expensive.
“I testified in the Texas redistricting case – seven years of litigation. It just went on and on and on.”
Just when Hispanic voters are flexing their democratic muscles, like in Islip, Kousser says their path is being cut off.
“There will be fewer people going around knocking on doors to try to get them to vote. There will be fewer ads on Spanish television or radio.”
The town of Islip hasn't yet said how it will respond to the lawsuit, but Michael Carvin, a conservative lawyer who fights against voting rights cases, says there's no good reason to draw district lines to accommodate racial and ethnic groups. He says it's no longer true that minorities only vote for themselves.
“President Obama is the best example of that. The vast majority of his votes didn't come from his racial group. They came from other racial groups,” Carvin says.
He agrees that courts are much less willing to rule in favor of voting rights lawsuits. He says that's a good thing because racially segregated voting districts takes us away from a post-racial ideal.
“I think that the more that we insist on a system that treats every voter minority and non-minority the same, the closer we're going to be coming to that ideal.”
Back in Brentwood, Ana Flores says Latinos have been asking for that equal treatment for years. But still, they can't get anyone from their community elected.
“If you have someone that looks like us and knows who we are and knows what we go through, then there's a better chance that they will comply to what we want and, again, all we want is to be heard.”
Much of the debate on voting rights has shifted to the states, where new protections are being enacted and challenged in court.