The Give: Crist贸bal Alex and Ford Push the Fight for Voters’ Rights

Crist贸bal Alex, a 36-year-old program officer at the Ford Foundation, looks at this presidential election year and sees a window of opportunity for American citizens who have been disenfranchised from the political process, including many U.S. Latinos. 鈥淚 think what we need to do is push back very aggressively against efforts designed to disenfranchise voters,鈥 he said. 鈥淲e need to push back in a sustained attack, because it takes us back to Juan Crow. The second thing is to close the [voter] participation gap through registration and mobilization and other nonpartisan efforts designed to empower our communities.鈥 At Ford, where he has worked since last June, Alex is front and center in efforts to reverse an erosion of voter rights. He is a program officer in Ford鈥檚 Democratic Participation unit, where he oversees the domestic Promoting Electoral Reform and Democratic Participation initiative. He would ideally like to see voting rights expanded to assure greater participation in the electoral process through universal registration and an end to other barriers. A graduate of the University of Washington law school in Seattle, Alex has lived in New York only six years. He was born and raised in El Paso, where his older brother, a highly functioning autistic person, is an artist who is deeply involved with the Catholic Church and lives with their parents. Their mother, Consuelo Alex, has nine siblings. She moved to the United States as a migrant farmworker from Zacatecas state in Mexico before meeting her husband, Holger, who was part of a West German air force rocket team stationed in the El Paso area. He later emigrated from Germany. After having started his studies at the University of Texas, Crist贸bal Alex graduated from Southern Methodist University with dual majors in International Business and Foreign Languages (Spanish and German). He started working in civil rights law after completing his J.D. degree in Seattle. Alex became the youngest president of the Latina/o Bar Association of Washington state, where he also co-founded and chaired the Latino Political Action Committee, and the Farm Worker Justice Project, through Legal Aid Washington. He recalled that the Latino Political Action Committee resulted from the lack of high-level state Latino political appointments in Washington. 鈥淚 started that PAC to pressure the governor to make Latino appointments, and we were able to influence elections and start exercising power,鈥 he said. 鈥淚 believe it was the first PAC designed to increase Latino state appointments.鈥 He has also kept active in public service since his move to New York. He is a board member of both the Funders Committee for Civic Participation, which is sponsored by the New York-based Public Interest Projects, and the Latino Engagement Fund, which is housed at the Washington, D.C.-based Democracy Alliance. He recently married Ta铆 Merey Alex, a law graduate of the City University of New York who coordinates legal access services at the Harlem Community Justice Center. The couple recently moved with their pit bull rescue dog, named Chelsea, from Lower Manhattan鈥檚 East Village to the Astoria section of Queens in New York City. How do you see the general field of U.S. philanthropy coming out of the recession? For one thing, the recession has hit many of our grantees very hard. It has also hit hard some of our fellow funders. In terms of democratic participation, what we鈥檙e seeing is fewer resources going into the field, which is making it harder for communities, particularly communities of color, to really build power and take ownership of democracy, and build on it the day after the election. So what it means to us in the field, and I鈥檓 very proud to be at Ford Foundation, is that we have to be very strategic and very thoughtful. We have to do more mapping, to cut turf in order to avoid duplication, and to really ally ourselves with our partners in ways that, six years ago or eight years ago, funders didn鈥檛 have to. Being at the Ford Foundation in this position, I feel extremely lucky and honored to be here at this historic moment with the leadership of the foundation, President Luis Ubi帽as and Vice-President Maya Harris. Our leadership recognizes the urgency of the moment, and they are willing to be aggressive and make big bets. And that gives us the ability to think about building political power in communities of color and in low-income communities. We see the upcoming election as an opportunity to really grow the power of these communities so that, once the election is over, advancing meaningful reform becomes a possibility. What kind of reform? Social justice and human rights. There鈥檚 a range of reforms that we would want to see. There are reforms that can elevate communities, advancing voting rights and protecting voting rights, education rights and attainment, employment opportunities. And, of course for the Latino community, a frequently cited issue and one our foundation looks at is immigration. We want immigrants to have the opportunities to become full partners. At Ford, the way this cycle would work is to take folks from naturalization to voter registration, from registration to voter participation, from participation to activities such as leadership development鈥 and advocacy. When we connect all those things, it鈥檚 an ideal situation. Yet, as we work very hard to increase democratic participation in the Latino community, there are those who are doing everything they can to block participation by rolling back voting rights [through legislation] 聽such as voter ID 鈥 and citizenship requirements. 鈥. [These are] efforts that are taking us back even before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 [which outlawed聽 literacy tests and led to a judicial ban on poll taxes, among other barriers tailored to keep Blacks from voting]. Those landmark civil rights have been weakened over the past several years. What kinds of activities have led up to your voting rights efforts in this presidential election year? I鈥檓 extremely proud of the work of our grantees in 2010 to make sure that disenfranchised communities were counted in the Census, and the work in 2011 of our grantees to make sure redistricting was fair, open and transparent and protects minority voting rights, and this year to make sure that the people who were counted in the Census and represented in redistricting have the ability to vote and do in fact vote. What should be the priority among this election year鈥檚 efforts? Since 1972, we as a country have not made any progress in closing the Latino voter gap. The gap between Latinos registered to vote and the rest of the population has only grown. So that is an area we need to look at, because voter registration is the key that unlocks the door to democratic participation. And we know that when a community votes, its elected leaders are more responsive to the community. In 2010, we saw firsthand what can happen when Latinos vote at scale. And when they did that, they essentially stopped the Tea Party tidal wave from reaching the Pacific, and policy makers were responsive. At the same time, when the community doesn鈥檛 vote, those policy makers will essentially disregard that community, and the laws that are passed won鈥檛 reflect the community. That鈥檚 at every level of government, from having streetlights鈥 to federal legislation and even to having a Latina Supreme Court justice. What would be most necessary for Ford and its partners to improve the current situation? We work in collaboration with our foundation partners to close the participation gap, but there are other things we need to be doing. We need to get money out of politics. The Supreme Court鈥檚 Citizens United decision opened the floodgates for corporations and other super-rich individuals to take over elections and our democracy. So we need to find a way to address the money and politics problem. [In that sharply criticized 2010 Citizens United ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court cited free-speech protections in easing restrictions on 鈥渂ig money鈥 political and campaign spending by corporations and unions seeking to sway the voting public.] Another thing we have to figure out is how to modernize our democracy. Why are we one of the only democracies that requires citizens to register to vote, rather than having automatic registration? Why are we the only one that has a redistricting process that can limit representation? There are some structural problems that need to be addressed. Which portion of the public is being targeted in the efforts to close the voter registration gap? Eligible citizens. We want to make sure that noncitizens have the right to become citizens and then have the rights of our democracy, which includes the right to vote鈥 . [Citizens of voting age need to be made aware] that their vote makes a difference, and usually the way we do that is by tying that to an issue and making it so that folks have an opportunity to register. But there are significant impediments. So, for example, we know that there were margins of victory in prior cycles of less than one percent in a place where only 14 percent of Latinos turned out to vote. It鈥檚 connecting the vote to an issue or to an area that is important to a voter; helping them to make the connection of how voting can make a difference. What would you like to see happen going forward in this field? What could be game-changing would be voter modernization or universal voter registration. And what would be groundbreaking would be a very open and transparent government that did not have a corrupting influence of secret money, and candidates who truly represent the communities that elect them. What does U.S. philanthropy need to do to get there? For one thing, all the money in philanthropy鈥揺ven if it were aligned鈥揺ven the biggest foundations do 聽not have sufficient resources to undertake this effort, and we need to be thinking about helping our grantees and civil society to develop new funding streams, so that they鈥檙e not overly reliant on philanthropy. For the organizations to develop funding streams through their own membership or other innovative ways of bringing in revenue. The one point I would like to make is, if you look at the [recent] cover of Time magazine [featuring Latino voters] and if you look at the public narrative, there鈥檚 an assumption that Latinos can make the difference and be the deciding force in the upcoming elections. But it doesn鈥檛 take into account that we have very low participation rates and there is a concerted effort to thwart registration efforts. When we finally get there, then Latinos can begin building power. But until we get there, we should not make assumptions, because demography is not destiny. What do you mean by 鈥渁 concerted effort to thwart registration efforts鈥? No fewer than 39 states have introduced legislation to make it harder to vote, and that鈥檚 a very coordinated effort. Many people will point to ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. It is frequently the one behind the model bills that many legislatures, and particularly right-wing legislators, will pick up. Examples include [the state immigration enforcement] SB 1070 in Arizona and voter ID requirements. There are many who don鈥檛 want Latinos turning out to vote. [ALEC describes itself in part as a nonpartisan membership association for conservative state lawmakers.] The Brennan Center for Justice [at New York University School of Law] estimates that, from the voter ID laws alone, upward of five million people will be denied the right to vote, and those laws disproportionately will impact African Americans and Latinos. For example, there is Texas, which had the biggest growth in the country because of the Latino vote. Texas passed a law that requires IDs. A handgun permit is a proper ID there, but university ID is not a proper ID. So, in Texas, nearly 11 percent of registered Latinos don鈥檛 have the right ID, compared with five percent of non-Latinos. That means that as many as 800,000 can be disenfranchised in Texas alone. What would you like to see people in U.S. philanthropy do to help? If they work in philanthropy, there are different vehicles or ways for them to move resources in this area that would be a good investment. There鈥檚 the wonderful new collaborative, the National Latino Civic Engagement Table, and there are numerous state and local organizations working to empower Latino voters. There are other organizations working to protect the right to vote. [The collaborative was created through the efforts of five groups: the National Council of La Raza, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, Voto Latino, Mi Familia Vota, and the Center for Community Change.]