Why is Manhattan Covered by the Voting Rights Act, but Staten Island is Not?

February 25th, 2013

My friend Ilya Shapiro frequently cites the fact that Manhattan is a covered jurisdiction under the Voting Rights Act, but not Staten Island, as evidence that the coverage maps are antiquated and out of date. I always wondered, why is New York City, hardly Jim-Crow-Territory, covered by VRA

Daniel Brook writes an interesting piece in Slate that sheds some light on this historical anomaly:

In the state of New York, home to the nation’s most international city, a burgeoning immigrant population at the turn of the last century sparked a similar disenfranchisement push, one that ultimately led three of New York City’s five boroughs to become covered jurisdictions under the Voting Rights Act. New York’s voter suppression effort began in fits and starts. One early-20th-century law required that voters in the state’s largest cities reregister every year, a cumbersome mandate imposed under the pretext that urban voters’ frequent changes of address opened the door to voter fraud. In the 1908 election, concern that Jewish immigrant voters would support Socialist Party candidate Eugene V. Debs prompted city authorities to hold voter registration solely on Saturdays, the Sabbath during which observant Jews are forbidden from writing, and on a single Monday, Yom Kippur.

In 1921, New York State voters adopted a more comprehensive disenfranchisement strategy: They passed a referendum mandating that registrants pass an English-language literacy test. Unlike Southern literacy tests, which were studded with trick questions and capriciously graded by all-white registration staffs (see Jim Crow Louisiana’s test here), the New York State test sincerely tested English literacy—in a sincere effort to disenfranchise citizens who didn’t speak English as their first language.
As it happened, the people most disenfranchised by the test were not actually immigrants, who were rare after Congress passed the National Origins Act and Asian Exclusion Act in 1924, but internal migrants from Puerto Rico. Born on U.S. soil, Puerto Ricans had voting rights through birthright citizenship. But having been educated in the Spanish-language public schools on the island, they couldn’t pass New York’s English-language test and subsequently lost their ability to vote when they moved to the city seeking better jobs. At the time the Voting Rights Act passed, only 30 percent of Puerto Rican New Yorkers were registered to vote. After the 1968 election, Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx became covered jurisdictions according to a coverage formula that mandated preclearance for jurisdictions that had used a “test or device” to limit voting and had low registration and/or turnout statistics. A separate provision of the Voting Rights Act, which is not being challenged at the Supreme Court, invalidated New York’s literacy test as well as the pseudo-literacy tests in the South.

I had no idea.

But is the VRA still relevant for New York? Indeed, NYC has filed a brief in support of VRA.

In his filing statement, Mayor Bloomberg explained, “while New York has come a very long way since the 1960s … there remain other jurisdictions where there are efforts to impose unnecessary burdens.” Essentially New York will put up with the federal oversight because it doesn’t trust places like Alabama. And running a city where native-born whites are a small minority—New York City is now 37 percent foreign-born and, as the amicus brief notes, 67 percent minority—the mayor feels a certain responsibility to defend members of minority groups nationwide.

But what about Staten Island (my home town) and Queens. These places are not covered by VRA?

The City’s brief notably avoids offering any defense of Congress’ coverage formula, which still relies on 1960s-era demographic data. Relying on more current data would likely flip the coverage scheme in New York City, increasing scrutiny on the two boroughs exempted from preclearance—Queens and Staten Island—in which the native-born white power structure has been most recently challenged by changing demographics. In a 2002 Election Day incident in Flushing, a once near-lily-white Queens neighborhood which has lately become almost entirely Asian, a white poll worker complained that Asian-American voters “should learn to speak English.” But since Queens was not heavily Puerto Rican in the 1960s, according to the Section 5 coverage formula, it need not preclear the electoral changes carried out by bigoted officials like this one.