NM lawmaker says America still needs Voting Rights Act
Those reaching this conclusion include five U.S. Supreme Court justices, who this week ruled that the key part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is obsolete.
The federal government need not oversee Southern elections any longer because counties and states are doing an honest job themselves, the court majority said.
New Mexico state Rep. Nate Cote, right, followed the story closely and then made his own observation.
“If the South is better, the Southwest is worse,” he said.
Cote, D-Organ, said he has been frustrated by the slowness of the state attorney general in investigating abuses against voters on Election Night last November in the border town of Chaparral.
Chaparral’s was a chaotic scene, reminiscent of Selma, Ala., on Oct. 7, 1963, when 300 blacks lined up at the courthouse to register to vote. The sheriff in Selma, whose name was Jim Clark, made sure his deputies were available to arrest what he called “the demonstrators.”
At the Far South Fire Station in Chaparral last fall, lines of voters snaked outside the polling station. The Otero County commissioners had declined requests from Cote and others to establish an early voting location in Chaparral, citing extra expenses of $3,500.
The nearest early voting location was 85 miles away in Alamogordo, the county seat. It meant that most people in the Otero County portion of Chaparral had to wait until Election Day to vote.
The Chaparral polling place had only had one voting booth and one voter list, even though people from two precincts were voting there. This combination of indifference and poor planning by the county clerk and commissioners ensured that the lines would be among the longest and slowest in the country. The last person in line in Chaparral did not vote until 10:45 p.m.
In between, Hispanics waiting to participate in democracy got a sense of the Old South in the modern Southwest.
The election judge in Chaparral saw that line of brown-skinned voters and decided she needed help. But she did not call for more translators, poll workers or another voting machine. She called the sheriff, just as they did in Selma.
By the official account of the Otero County clerk, lines of voters were noisy, even unruly. Voters said this was not true.
The county government that could not afford to give Chaparral an early voting site had ample resources to dispatch eight deputies to stand over voters trapped in those long lines.
Deputies set up yellow crime-scene tape around the polling place. One woman told me they threatened her with arrest because she was among the volunteers passing out water and chairs to voters. Her parents, 88 and 89 years old, were among those in line.
So intimidating were the deputies that children were assigned to bring water to waiting voters. Chaparral residents figured that the sheriff would not arrest a child, but he might lock up adults.
Optimism could not be crushed among the voters, even with the heavy police presence.
One woman waited in line for more than five hours as the temperatures dropped to the mid-40s. She stuck it out until she voted, excited to exercise her right.
“Voting is one of the best things about being an American,” she said.
In Las Cruces, members of the community organization New Mexico Café were preparing for a post-election party when they received a phone call about the mess in Chaparral.
“The line at the fire station isn’t moving. People are getting cold and some are leaving,” one woman told them.
Another problem was that the poll workers had run out of provisional ballots, meaning those whose addresses did not match records in this combined precinct were not being allowed to vote.
Volunteers arrived like a small cavalry at 7:15 p.m.
“We found that the police had been called, but we never figured out why,” one said. “About 150 people were still in line. We made hot chocolate, found blankets and sweaters for voters and lit our candles. We started to sing. We sang to distract people from the discomfort of standing, and we sang to make people laugh and make people feel safe in the dark.
“We were able to get more provisional ballots, and we put in calls to the secretary of state about the disorganized process.”
Cote won the election that night. In March, he asked the attorney general for an investigation of voter intimidation. Witness statements were taken, but Cote said he is tired of waiting for results.
Now, he said, he may ask the federal government to do its own investigation. Especially bothersome to him is that law-abiding people who showed up to vote in an American town were confronted by armed deputies.
Given what he saw in Chaparral, Cote said, the Voting Rights Act still has a place in America, if not in the South, in the Southwest.