Wisconsin has had a significantly sized Puerto Rican community since the post-World War II era, when Puerto Ricans were recruited to work in factories and fields in the Midwest. According to U.S. Census data, Wisconsin’s Puerto Rican population has grown exponentially, from 30,267 in 2000, to 46,323 in 2010, to 61,901 in 2016. The current growth rate of 33.6 percent will most certainly increase due to the devastation caused by Hurricane María.
Milwaukee Ald. José Pérez is among local leaders of the relief efforts, stressing that the 3.4 million people in Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens “facing a human catastrophe of epic proportions.” Over a month after María hit Puerto Rico, more than 79 percent of residents still lack electricity, and millions still lack water, food, and medical care. Only a fraction of public schools have reopened, and over 30,000 students have already left the island.
As Wisconsin’s Latino community responds to the needs of people on the island, it’s very clear that some Puerto Ricans will come to live with family and friends in the Dairy State.
The next question is: What will become of Puerto Ricans’ voting rights? We posit that rather than letting modern-day poll taxes and literacy tests such as voter ID and English-only elections diminish Puerto Rican voting rights, Wisconsin should ensure everyone’s fundamental rights to participate in democracy.
As Katherine documented in 2009, participation in elections in Puerto Rico is the highest in the nation, at over 80 percent; however, participation among Puerto Ricans on the mainland is significantly diminished, due in part to barriers to the ballot. And as Luz observes, Puerto Rican citizens in Wisconsin will be even more driven to change the political situation, because the Trump administration and Congress have failed to provide adequate funding for the island’s recovery. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Republican from the Milwaukee suburb of Menomonee Falls — as well as Wisconsin GOP Reps. Mike Gallagher and Sean Duffy — voted against the most recent disaster relief bill, and many Wisconsinites want to change the system of callous disregard that has led to racial disparities in this and so many other facets of life.
The voter ID issue must be addressed head-on. Because all Puerto Rican birth certificates issued prior to 2010 were invalidated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, they are not accepted in voter ID states. As people of color and low-income voters in Wisconsin have unfortunately learned, there is always a cost to getting a state voter ID — including the cost of original or replacement birth certificates, the "time tax" involved in proving you cannot get one and may be entitled to a “free ID,” and the cost of finding out about and navigating the procedures. Then there is the cost of finding someone to translate, because outside of Milwaukee this information is in English only. Considering that the Puerto Rican government is in no shape to respond to requests for replacement birth certificates or validate the originals, Wisconsin should provide a blanket exemption so that any person born in Puerto Rico automatically receives a free voter ID.
The fact that elections are conducted in English-only outside of Milwaukee is also a huge barrier for Puerto Ricans who want to vote in Wisconsin. As U.S. citizens by birthright, there is no requirement for Puerto Ricans to learn English to become citizens, and those who grew up on the island were educated primarily in Spanish.
Since 1965, the Voting Rights Act has prohibited all literacy tests, including “conditioning” the voting rights of Puerto Ricans on the ability to speak English. This means that counties with significant Puerto Rican populations must provide bilingual ballots and poll workers, so Puerto Ricans who speak Spanish aren’t forced to vote by guesswork, or be too intimidated to vote. Federal courts have held that all citizens must have meaningful access to complete understanding of the ballot. This is important in Wisconsin, where over 58 percent of Puerto Ricans of voting age have limited English proficiency. Like all citizens, they deserve equal access to the right to vote.
According to 2016 Census data, Brown, Dane, Kenosha, Milwaukee, Racine, and Waukesha counties all have more than 2,000 Puerto Ricans. Of these, only Milwaukee has bilingual ballots and poll workers — but the Voting Rights Act requires them for any place with a significant Puerto Rican population. If other Wisconsin counties don’t come into compliance, thousands of citizens will struggle to understand the voting procedures, and their right to vote will be severely compromised. Furthermore, the state should provide access to the state voter registration form and any related instructions in Spanish.
While Wisconsin is receiving evacuees from Puerto Rico, it is also receiving the gift of a civically active population being welcomed into a generous Latino community that is already part of the state. We urge the state to welcome Puerto Ricans by providing broad exemptions to voter ID requirements and comprehensive Spanish-language access to elections. It’s about time to turn the tide back towards democracy and honor the ties that bind us all together.
Luz Sosa is an economics instructor at the Milwaukee Area Technical College, an organizer for Citizen Action of Wisconsin and a leader of the state’s Latino community. Katherine Culliton-González is a nationally recognized expert on Puerto Rican voting rights and a senior counsel with Demos.
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