Voting rights of minorities denied in parts of US: UN expert

UN special rapporteur says Texas voting restrictions dilute rights of ethnic minorities, result in ‘gerrymandering’.

The US for the first time was included on a list this week of 'backsliding' democracies, in part due to a slew of state legislation passed in recent months that make it harder for some voters to cast their ballots [File: Mikala Compton/Reuters]

A United Nations human rights expert has denounced measures in some parts of the United States, including Texas, that he said may undermine democracy by denying millions of people belonging to visible minority groups the equal right to vote.

Speaking on the final day of a two-week official visit to the US, Fernand de Varennes said on Monday that Texas legislation has resulted in “gerrymandering” and the dilution of voting rights of ethnic minorities in favour of white people.

“It is becoming unfortunately apparent that it is almost a tyranny of the majority where the minority right to vote is being denied in many areas, in parts of the country,” de Varennes, the UN special rapporteur on minority issues, said during a news conference.

De Varennes called for a “New Deal” to overhaul legislation. There was no immediate US reaction to his preliminary observations, which the UN expert said he had shared with US Department of State officials earlier in the day.

His comments came after the US was included for the first time on a list of “backsliding” democracies, in part due to a slew of state legislation passed in recent months that make it harder for some voters to cast their ballots.

“Research indicates that some states’ voter registration and voting laws, either recently approved or currently under discussion, end up disproportionately affecting minorities in a negative way,” the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance report found (PDF).

The US Department of Justice sued Texas earlier this month “over certain restrictive voting procedures” contained in a contentious state law known as SB1, which the department said infringes on federal voting and civil rights laws.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed SB1 into law in September, arguing the Republican-backed measure would help combat voter fraud. But civil rights groups and other observers said the legislation aimed to make it harder for Democratic-leaning minorities to cast ballots.

Among other measures, SB1 prohibited drive-through and 24-hour voting locations, added new identification requirements for mail-in voting, restricted who could help voters that require assistance due to language barriers or disabilities, and empowers partisan poll-watchers.

Texas was one of more than a dozen US states to pass voting changes since the 2020 presidential elections, spurred in part by former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the vote was marred by widespread fraud.

The Brennan Center for Justice, a New York University research centre that documents voting rights legislation in the US, reported that at least 19 states enacted 33 laws that make it harder for Americans to vote between January 1 and September 27 of this year.

Texas’s SB1 legislation “disproportionately burdens Latino, Black, and Asian voters and makes it harder for those who face language access barriers or who have disabilities to get help casting their ballots”, said the centre, which has challenged the law in US court.

“In a state where it was already hard to vote, [SB1] compounds the barriers faced by Texas voters,” it said.

This month, lawsuits also were filed in Texas over congressional redistricting maps that critics said were “diluting the voting power of communities of colour” while giving white voters political influence that outweighs their share of the state’s population.

The state was awarded two additional seats in the US House of Representatives this year due to population growth.

“Texas added two million Latinos to its population in the 2020 Census, and yet State Republicans have still found a way to gerrymander and avoid adding districts that represent this growth,” Maria Teresa Kumar, CEO of Voto Latino, a group that is challenging the maps, said in a statement late last month.

“The Texas GOP’s efforts silence Latino voices through diminishing the power of their voting, packing and dividing them into convoluted district lines that lessen their representation, and making it harder to elect representatives of their choice,” Kumar said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies