Nina Perales has been a civil rights attorney in Texas for 26 years, during which she has litigated two landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases against the state’s efforts to disenfranchise Latino voters through redistricting. She currently oversees several voting-rights lawsuits across the nation, challenging voter suppression as vice president of litigation at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), a nonprofit founded in San Antonio in 1968.
MALDEF recently filed two challenges against the state’s new gerrymandered electoral maps, which were redrawn last year, and against Senate Bill 1—the omnibus anti-voting law that caused headaches during early voting in February. In the suits, MALDEF is alleging dicrimination against constitutionally protected classes, including Latinos and disabled voters. Perales, who moved to Texas from the East Coast in the mid-1990s, is no stranger to the tricks that state lawmakers use to dilute the voting power of the fast-growing, non-white electorate. The Observer spoke with her about her career, the threat against voting rights in Texas, and the power of the law to protect access to the ballot.
What was your first impression of Texas?
My first impressions were that we had a lot of untapped potential in the Latino community in terms of voter participation, and that there were many barriers to participation. I felt grateful for the opportunity to work on [these] issues because voting is one of the most important ways for each person to make a difference in public policy.
How do the state’s anti-voting laws affect Latinos’ voter participation?
A law can affect how you vote, like SB 1, or the strength of your vote, which is what happens in redistricting. We also dealt a couple of years ago with Texas purging voters off the rolls. The actions of public officials can affect if you even have the opportunity to vote because if you’re purged off the voter list improperly—you should be registered, you took the time and effort to do so—you can’t participate at all. So there are different points where the state can create barriers, and all of it affects Texas’ political future.
What’s new about attacks on voters today?
Texas is attempting to suppress Latino and other minority voting rights on three fronts right now. The first is SB 1, which is a law that was passed last year in the Texas Legislature that restricts the way people can cast their ballot. One set of provisions in SB 1 has to do with restricting assistance for voters at the polling place and by mail—including voters who are disabled, need language assistance, or both. By restricting assistance for voters, Texas is very directly targeting naturalized U.S. citizens who often will take somebody, a friend or a relative, to help them navigate the polling place and vote. There’s no evidence that voters who use assistance are involved in fraud. Nevertheless, SB 1, which claims to address voter fraud, limits assistance to voters. This is in violation of federal law, which gives voters the right to assistance and to bring the assistant of their choice. Then there’s redistricting, where Texas has rearranged the boundaries of election districts in a way that reduces Latino electoral influence. The third is the renewed voter purge that Texas is undertaking right now, in which it’s targeting about 11,000 voters for removal from the rolls on the theory that these voters are not U.S. citizens. But as you may have seen from articles, the people that are stepping forward and saying that they were targeted are naturalized U.S. citizens, and in Texas, naturalized U.S. citizens are predominantly Latino and Asian American. When you target naturalized citizens for removal from the voter rolls, it is a very surgical strike against Latinos and Asian American voters in particular. And so this is really three different attacks on minority voting rights going on simultaneously.
How does this fit into historical voter discrimination in Texas?
Since the early 1970s, when Texas took up regular redistricting every 10 years, one or more redistricting plans have been found to have discriminated against Latino voters, either by a federal court or by the U.S. Department of Justice. Not to mention the fact that recently, Texas was also found to have enacted a discriminatory voter ID law that weighed more heavily on minority voters than white voters, in violation of the Voting Rights Act. And the new cases that we have brought recently: We did a voter purge case in 2019, the SB 1 case this year, the redistricting case this year, and now we’re starting litigation again on issues surrounding the new purge. Texas continues to attempt to suppress minority voting rights despite a long history of having those actions blocked by the courts or the federal government.
Is the discrimination particularly overt at this moment?
There have been consistent efforts over time to thwart the emergence of new electorates, not just in Texas, but in other states as well. I did a case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 involving an Arizona voter registration law that violated the National Voter Registration Act, and that was a law that was passed in 2005. So we can’t say that laws that attempt to limit voting are new, but you often see states or localities enacting these laws when they have a concern about the changing face of the electorate.
On a more hopeful note, do you feel like Texas has made any progress on civil rights?
I think Texas tries to move backward, but we are able to rely on the courts often to restore voting rights. The progress is slow, but we are getting there.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.