A bright, warm noon in Washington, D.C.—the start of spring. On the precipice of the Supreme Court, facing the Capitol, a phalanx of lawmakers and advocates is assembled before a lectern with cameras around.
“This is part of our story—despite the struggles, we thrive,” Congressman Raul Ruiz of California says.
“For too long, our people have been locked out of the system,” adds Congresswoman Veronica Escobar of Texas. “This is why elections matter.”
The group, organized by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, had come together in support of the nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson, who, weeks later, would be confirmed by the Senate as the first Black woman on the Court—a welcome victory against uncertain odds, and one exceptionally charged in a time of judicial upheaval. In early May, a draft of the Court’s opinion on Dobbs v. Jackson, written by Justice Samuel Alito, leaked to Politico, revealing a high court poised to overturn the 1973 abortion-rights ruling Roe v. Wade. Alexis McGill Johnson, the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood, described the putative opinion as “horrifying and unprecedented” and declared her organization “built for the fight.” As written the decision would turn the matter of reproductive rights over to elected state leaders, and many lawmakers announced their intent to push restrictions to abortion through as soon as possible. In a moment of national polarization, the stakes of the ballot box rose overnight.
As did the project of securing access to that ballot box itself—not a new challenge to those gathered on the steps of the Supreme Court. The United States’ Latinx community accounts for half of all population growth in the last census, yet for decades its voice—as rich and as varied in views as that of any group in America—has been embattled. When Escobar finishes, she passes the microphone to a tall, poised woman in a crisp orange pantsuit and studded suede heels. This is María Teresa Kumar, the founding president of Voto Latino, the country’s largest Latinx voting-rights organization, and, with a fraught struggle for control of the Senate and the House expected this autumn, one of several grassroots leaders upon whom much depends.
Kumar, who has long brown hair and a brisk, dry way of speaking, runs her eyes across the assembled crowd. “It was a collective, multicultural America who brought Joe Biden into office and created a space for him to make an historical choice and keep his promise of bringing a Black woman to the Supreme Court,” she says. And that multicultural America must hold its voice. “I can’t wait to get started.”
Before the assembly ends, Eric Rodriguez, a senior vice president at the Latinx advocacy nonprofit UnidosUS, delivers a plea for ballot access. “One in five students in our classrooms today are Latino. Nearly one million Latinos turn 18 every year and become eligible to vote. This is not just about the past—it’s the future of our country,” he says. Later, he tells me he is optimistic but not sanguine about voting access in midterm elections this fall.
“In 2018, Latinos voted in record numbers in a midterm election. In 2020, the turnout was 30 percent higher from Latinos than it was in 2016. We see a recognition of that, and barriers being thrown up—more Latino votes is not what some political leaders want to see,” he says. “Part of what we’re trying to do is to show that we can break through, and continue to register young voters and speak with them about the importance of voting.”
As he leaves, he passes a utility console on the corner, across the street from the Court. On it is a poster commemorating Representative John Lewis, the civil rights hero turned legislator who died in 2020. “My dear friends,” it reads, weaving some words from an address to the Democratic National Convention that Lewis delivered in 2012 into a little verse,
your VOTE is
Precious, almost SACRED it is
The most powerful TOOL we have
To make a more better UNION
Kumar leads me across First Street NE to the grounds of the U.S. Capitol. Babies are being wheeled in strollers, and the first pink blossoms are pale on the trees. At the height of the pandemic, Kumar came to the Capitol lawn, with her two kids, now nine and eight, to play on the grass—one of the few parks open. She was born in Colombia, but when she was four her family came to California for a better life. From the time she was naturalized, five years later, U.S. institutions seemed to her part of the promise of equal access and fair opportunity. “There was always a period where we were asked what we were thankful for, right before we kicked off the class, and I raised my hand and said I was thankful for becoming an American citizen,” she says as we settle onto a shady concrete bench facing the Capitol. “It meant something.”
As Kumar grew older, though, in Northern California’s Sonoma County, she became aware that U.S. opportunity was not distributed as promised. Pete Wilson, the state’s Republican governor through the ’90s, championed Proposition 187, which set up a screening system to prevent undocumented immigrants from accessing social services. “It was devastating,” Kumar says. “The land that accepted me all of a sudden was turning neighbors against neighbors and racially profiling us—in progressive, liberal Sonoma! I remember coming home from college and telling my grandmother and my uncles and my aunts to become U.S. citizens, because things were off.” Kumar, despite being told by some teachers not to aim higher than community college, made it to the UC system and then to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a career in policy on the Hill. She regards the Wilson constraints as a rallying moment, not only among Latinx Californians but nationally. “People often say, ‘Where’s the Latino vote?’ Well, without California becoming solidly blue, there would not be a progressive party,” she says.
In 2004, drawing funding from her own credit cards, Kumar helped launch Voto Latino. National immigration policy was tightening under President George W. Bush; it seemed to her a moment when Latinx voters were at risk of losing voice. “We were building this in the backdrop of the first immigration rallies, in 2006,” she recalls. The American Family Survey of 2003 had noted that Latinos were the second-largest ethnic demographic in the U.S. Kumar realized she was looking at a vast, under-voiced political force.
Now Voto Latino is working “to communicate what is happening on the streets to the ballot box,” Kumar says. With the midterms approaching, that means increasing fair turnout. “There are a number of organizations around who are doing everything they can,” Mandela Barnes, the 35-year-old lieutenant governor of Wisconsin and, as of this writing, the Democratic front-runner for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Ron Johnson, tells me. “But as a campaign I don’t want just to rely on organizations to get it done. We want to make sure that our people are going to be organized, and that we know all the rules front to back.” While Barnes, whose mother was a public school teacher and whose father is a member of the United Auto Workers union, has made a point of describing himself as the voice of normal people, he says his campaign’s outreach strategy has taken no support for granted. “Whether it’s in regards to Roe or voting rights, we have to take our message to every single community,” he says.
In Barnes’s case, the stakes could not be higher. Beginning in 2021, Wisconsin became subject to new voting restrictions on drop boxes for absentee voters—a service especially to low-wage workers, who often struggle to find time to get to the polls. And on publication of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision on abortion, Wisconsin could revert to a law put on the books in 1849—before emancipation and the Civil War—which defines abortion as a Class H or E offense, respectively punishable by up to six years in prison and $10,000 in fines or a decade in prison. Johnson, the state’s Republican incumbent in the Senate, has expressed support for a Roe overturn and a federal ban on abortions after 20 weeks. “In a state like Wisconsin, where 7 out of 10 people support Roe v. Wade, they continue to govern counter to the interests of people, and the only way they can maintain power is by limiting who has access to the ballot,” Barnes tells me. “Our democracy is quite literally on the line right now.” He nods in resolve. “There is no excuse for inaction.”