Q&A: UCLA’s Latino Policy & Politics Initiative Director Paul Barragan-Monge Says MLK Day Is a Good Time to Learn About Voting Rights

More than five decades ago, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. captured the attention of the country and the world by becoming one of the biggest leaders in a series of non-violent marches and protests that laid the groundwork for desegregation, including the removal of barriers to equal access to education and the of outlawing practices that severely inhibited the rights of people of color to vote. While these advances have contributed to a more just and egalitarian understanding of American democracy, they must be continually fought for.

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Two pending pieces of federal legislation aim to do just that, and they’re on the table at a time when members of Congress have been hearing testimony about the details of the January 6, 2021 insurrection on the U.S. Capital. The Freedom to Vote Act would make Election Day a national holiday. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would restore the federal government’s power to prevent voter discrimination at the state level.

Meanwhile, there is bipartisan support for reforming the Electoral Count Act, an 1887 law providing the framework for how Congress counts the Electoral College vote. Under that law, Congress is to have all votes counted by January 6. But on that date last year, Republicans were still contesting the vote counts for the states of Arizona and Pennsylvania, and then President Donald Trump and his advisors urged then Vice President Mike Pence to claim Pence had the constitutional power to reject those counts. Pence refused to do so, and on January 20, 2021, newly elected President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris took office.

These are just some of the many pieces of legislation that the University of California Los Angeles Latino Policy & Politics Initiative is exploring in its Voting Rights Project. ProgessReport.co caught up with the initiative’s director, Paul Barragan-Monge, to learn how students and academics can join in their efforts to protect the rights of the country’s growing Latino population.

Q. Can you tell us more about the Latino Policy & Politics Initiative and its Voting Rights Project?

A. The UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative is a research center housed within the Luskin School of Public Affairs at UCLA. Its mission is to elevate the needs, concerns, and priorities of the Latino community within policy decision making at every level of government. We’ve reached our fifth year now, and in addition to health and access to economic opportunity, we are really focused on this question of representation in our democracy.

The voting rights movement was really born out of this need ensure access to the ballot, and we’re here to ensure that the growing Latino electorate is able to see itself reflected in positions of influence and power at the state local and federal level. It is, in large part, a response to the growing trend of restrictive voting rights bills across many states that in explicit and subdued ways target the growing political power of Latino communities and communities of color.

We’ve seen a rise in voter ID laws, in regulations limiting language access, and a reduction in polling hours at voting centers that are geographically accessible. We want to make sure that Latinos, as with every community of color, have the opportunity to elect their candidate of choice, so the voting rights project is really focused on how we can intervene at the federal and state level to ensure that as the number of Latinos grow, this growth is translating to an equitable reflection in political representation as well.

Q. So how do you do that?

A. We have a variety of approaches within the Voting Rights Project. For example, we provide expert testimony before Congress in support of national legislation such as the John Lewis Voting Rights Act which would help restore and expand voting rights protections at the federal level. We have a team of attorneys that litigate cases, where we do see challenges to voting rights. We’re engaged in efforts in Texas, Washington, and California, and we have been deeply focused on redistricting efforts to make sure that when geographic maps are proposed that don’t reflect the growing Latino communities and their political potential, that we can call those out and ensure that more accurate maps are drawn up that reflect the needs of the Latino community.


Q. What lessons did the Civil Rights Movement teach your institute about voting rights?

UCLA’s Latino Policy & Politics Initiative Director Paul Barragan-Monge. Photo courtesy of Paul Barragan-Monge.

 A. We a lot from those early movements, and in fact, much of the current movement is focusing on protecting the hard-fought victories that were achieved by our predecessors. A lot of the federal work has been focused on how we restore the protections in the Voting Rights Act (OF), rights that have been diminished over time by the Supreme Court’s decision-making . In some respects, it’s circular. We’re on the defensive protecting those wins made by the Civil Rights Movement, but at the same time, at the state level, we’re looking for innovative approaches to voter enfranchisement that we might not have seen 40 or 50 years ago. For example, in some cities in Maryland and in the County of San Francisco, certain voting rights have been extended to subsets of non-citizens residents so that they could also be part of the electoral process. In many ways, our past is our future because practices like non-citizen voting were commonplace in the United States up until the early 1900s. We should be looking at these innovations as efforts to ensure all communities are meaningfully integrated into our democracy.

Q. How can students or academics from within and outside of UCLA join in the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative’s projects?

A. There are a variety of ways. First, UCLA’s Latino Policy and Politics Initiative’s Voting Rights Project has a number of collegiate and graduate internships and fellowships for law and public policy students. We also have undergraduate students who are working with our team of researchers and attorneys to provide data insights that can help substantiate legal challenges in the courts to combat the restriction of voting rights. Our students are really at the forefront of crafting the recommendations, the filings, and the arguments that we’re advocating for from the courts to the capital. We welcome students within the entire UC system, and since we are currently remote, we have the capacity to take on team members who are not necessarily affiliated with UCLA or the UC system.

We are also partnering with other civil society groups to try to secure additional funding for schools to help students turning 18 who become eligible to vote register to vote. There are an estimated 800,000 Latino teenagers who become eligible to vote each year by aging into eligibility. Latinos are the majority of California’s K-12 public school student population, so I think that creating early habits around registration and voting is a really important opportunity. Students can help build the capacity of the school system by calling on the governor to increase the level of investment for voter registration programs in schools, helping those students better understand the steps it takes to participate in our democracy and preparing them for the incredible responsibility that comes with exercising the right to vote. There isn’t a letter writing campaign set up for that project yet but we hope to be developing this in the next few weeks.

And finally, the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative is hosting its second two-day virtual conference, Advancing Criminal Justice Reform Through a 21st Century Latinx Lens, on January 20 and 21 exploring the school to prison pipeline—the way suspensions and expulsions are often the entry point for young people into the criminal justice system. This will lead to a related discussion on how to reintegrate formerly incarcerated individuals back into their communities, including efforts to restore the right to vote of people previously convicted of a crime. In 2018, a majority of Floridians voted to restore the voting rights of those with a felony record, making them eligible to vote in the 2020 presidential election.

UCLA’s Latino Policy & Politics Initiative Director Paul Barragan-Monge at a rally for Latino rights. Photo courtesy of Paul Barragan-Monge.

Q. What got you interested in doing this kind of work?

A. I was born here into a family that came to United States fleeing the civil war in El Salvador, where the right to participate in a democracy was not a guarantee. I feel a personal investment in making sure that all people can really exercise the rights that are outlined in our constitution so that they can be fully participating and contributing members of our community. I also think the notion of citizenship is one that goes far beyond legal status. It’s really about an affinity that people have to where they live and to their neighbors, and it goes far beyond whether or not you were born here. Anyone who is setting roots here is contributing to our economy and helping our state and country to flourish.The website Generation Citizens does a lot of civics education and advocacy for youth, and their work has also led national efforts to lower the voting age.

Q. So with those notions in mind, what were some of the things that inspired you most about studying about the history of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement?

A. For me it’s the way Dr. King used language to help people understand that they are inherently valuable anddeserving of support and investment from our government. He had a tremendous ability to help people understand their own power and the ability that they have to change the course of their destinies, to change the political realities in which we live. He taught us that we have every ability to redirect how we are treated and represented in our government institutions.

That’s an issue we struggle a lot within immigrant communities. Coming from an immigrant family, you are often taught to hide, to not ask for support even when you absolutely need it and are entitled to it. You’re taught to remain in the shadows for survival. But what Dr. King really taught us is we are strongest when we are vocal, we are strongest when we step into our power and advocate alongside our neighbors, partners, and community members. It’s that sense that we don’t have to justify our mere existence to be deserving of support and investment.

-This interview was conducted by UnidosUS Senior Web Content Manager and ProgressReport.co Editor Julienne Gage. 

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