Q & A: Voto Latino’s Maria Teresa Kumar

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Five million. That’s how many voters would be negatively affected by the 19 laws and two executive orders issued in 14 states this year altering voting laws, according to a report released by the New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice. Among the most affected say Latino leaders: Latinos. The changes, made mostly in heavily Republican states, shorten the time span in which absentee ballots can be cast, and require state-issued photo identification.

Legislators say that the laws, passed in states that have seen a lot of Latino growth, will prevent voter fraud, but critics, including the Brennan Center, which called the laws “wholly unnecessary” because of the low incidence of fraud, say that it will disproportionately affect young, older, poor and minority voters who tend to lean Democratic.

We talked to Voto Latino’s executive director, Maria Teresa Kumar, about what the changes mean for Latinos, how you can make sure that your vote counts and the urgent need for Latinos to flex their voting power.

But first, a list of states that have changed voting laws. If you live here, make sure you are registered and have everything necessary to hit the polls: Florida, Georgia,, Kansas, Ohio, Wisconsin, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Indiana, W. Virginia, Maine, Alabama, Nevada, Rhode Island.

What was your reaction to reports about all the voting law changes?

We’ve been watching them very closely. They’ve been happening since March, not surprisingly right around the time that the census numbers started coming out. They are highly connected to areas where the Latino population has boomed in the last 10 years, places that all of the sudden received new congressional districts. In Texas alone, their growth from 2000 to 2010 gave them four additional Congressional seats and 3.5 of those seats were because of the Latino boom.

One of Voto Latino’s biggest concerns is that on the surface, it sounds like a great idea that you need an ID in order to register to vote. The other part of the equation that they are not saying is that you have roughly 18 million people who have lost their homes who are registered voters and now with the voter ID laws, it’s going to be so much more difficult to vote because now they have to get IDs that reflect that address. Disproportionately, that affects Latinos in Florida, where they lost a massive amount of homes, Texas and Nevada.

These pieces of legislation are just what I call ‘bubble gum band-aids.’ That at the end of the day, create incredible divisiveness in communities, that after these legislators retire, these neighbors are still going to have to figure out how they’re going to work together.

The laws have been passed in mostly Republican-held states. Coincidence?

At Voto Latino, we go after both Republicans and Democrats if they’re doing injustice toward the community. But I think that the Republicans, a few, not all, have been so vitriolic against Latinos that they realize that now they have a Latino vote problem. And they realize that they may not be able to fix the Latino vote problem and their image in time for the 2012 election, so they’re putting in these really difficult laws and biding their time to figure out how they can go ahead and save the Latino vote in the future.

That sounds like a pretty callous strategy.

I think it’s un-American. Instead of moving forward as a country and making sure we are franchising as many people as possible to make sure we have a healthy, robust and transparent democracy, by removing people from their vote and from their voice, it actually sends us backward as a country. It’s very alarming.

What can people do to make sure they can vote?

If you’ve moved or lost your home since the last election, you have to re-register to vote. Not only are you registered, but that your friends and family are also registered to vote.

Write a letter to your representative. One of the reason these laws are being passed is that they have people writing them letters. When I worked in Congress, for every letter my Congressman received, he counted that as a thousand people calling him. People will really take that seriously. They’re listening to their constituency.

President Obama recently said that the number of Latinos voting does not match our population number and the potential to wield political power. Do you agree?

For too long, Latinos have worked very hard and kept our heads down.

We want to make sure that we’re providing for our children. We don’t have that luxury anymore, because we’re hurting. but we have to lift up our heads and say, ‘Wait a second. If all I don’t pay attention to where my tax dollars go, and how I’m paying the people who are supposed to serve me, they’re not going to do what’s right for my family.’

What Latinos need to realize is that 2012 is an election that’s personal. It’s not about a candidate, it’s about the issues. The only reason these pieces of legislation are coming about now is because for so long we haven’t been at the table. Instead, we have become the menu.

Just like we have conversations about telenovelas, we have to have a peer-to-peer conversation about what’s happening with our community. There’s a real reason why our schools in our communities are falling apart, why our kids have record-high asthma rates because of pollution, and it’s because we are not participating in the political process. We are not paying attention to the leadership that we are electing.

Could these voting laws changes—especially coupled with the rash of state immigration laws—spark a more unified civil rights movement? What is it going to take for us to really embrace our voting power?

I think you have to take a step back and see where we are as a community, compared to where we were even 10 years ago. We’re not better off. When people started attacking Latinos who lived in California in 1993, they were attacking them with very similar voting ID laws, very similar immigration laws. What Latinos did for the first time is that they got together, registered and voted. And California no longer became a red state, but a swing state for a long time and that had a lot to do with Latinos flexing their muscle.

Nobody in my family is political except myself. Back then, I came home for Thanksgiving and for the first time, and I had my aunts, grandmother, uncles talking about becoming U.S. citizens and that was because they were feeling threatened. They made it personal and made sure that California was paying attention to their needs. And that’s what needs to happen now.

Are you launching a campaign of some sort as a result of these changes?

In last weekend of February we will have the very first Voto Latino Youth Power Summit at University of Southern California. We’re recruiting 500 Latinos from around the country and learn everything about voter registration and get out the vote. We’re going to make sure that they’re knowledgeable about laws and voting rights so that when they go back to their communities, they become Voto Latino representatives, sharing that information and doing voter registration. Our goal is to register 500,000 Latinos. That would be unprecedented by any organization and we’re confident that we can do it with each others’ help.

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About this author

Damarys Ocaña Perez,

Damarys Ocaña Perez is Director of Editorial Content at Latina Media Ventures. She leads its magazine, Latina, the pre-eminent beauty, fashion, culture and lifestyle magazine for acculturated U.S. Hispanic women and is responsible for maintaining Latina’s voice, vision and mission across all LMV platforms. Born in Havana and raised in Miami, she lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter.

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