542 Campaigns: The Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project

Magazine cover with "Elections" in blue text against white background, and "grassroots strategies for change" in black text

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 12 No. 1, "Elections: Grassroots Strategies for Change." Find more from that issue here.

Willie Velasquez is director of the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project. Founded in 1974, SVREP is widely considered to be one of the most successful voter registration efforts in the nation. It has conducted 542 registration campaigns, registering Mexican-American and Indian voters, educating voters, researching laws and restrictions, and initiating lawsuits against unfair election practices. The article that follows is adapted from a speech Velasquez gave in 1983 to the "Consultation on Citizen Responsibility, Political Participation and Government Accountability" sponsored by a number of foundations concerned with voting rights.


When the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project (SVREP) began in 1974 — 542 registration campaigns ago — we had noticed that Mexicans didn't vote. They didn't register and they didn't come out to vote. We had also noticed that a lot of money was spent to register Mexicans. It used to come from the East in a reverse migrant stream every four years, come to pick the Mexican crop of votes, to herd us to the polls, to vote for the Democrats. Every four years, just like the swallows returning to Capistrano, the high-powered types with money — a lot more money than we had — would come down. But they didn't register people.

So we were told to expect a tough row to hoe. And when you looked at all the data, all this information, you could get yourself depressed. You'd start thinking that maybe the major reason why Mexicans and Indians in the Southwest didn't register and vote — maybe it was totally our fault, maybe it was in our genes or something, maybe we were programmed not to vote. Over the years, I've changed my mind substantially on that question; I don't think it's in our genes anymore.

You see, Mexicans and Indians in the Southwest are starting to register and vote. I want to discuss why I think that is, why I think it is a long-term process, why I think it is going to continue in the future, and what I think the effects on this country will be.

We at SVREP decided early on that if we were going to presume to register Mexicans in the Southwest we ought to know a little bit about what we're doing. Why is it that Mexicans don't vote? You want to know that before you construct a campaign; you need a set of data, some facts. So we thought we'd better ask the people. That was a novel thing for us — in the past we had always asked our leaders.

Of course, we also asked our leaders — good guys, mostly men, good people throughout the Southwest. Most of the leadership said the reason that the Mexicans don't register, don't vote, and don't win office is because of "group problems." They were saying that we don't have enough education, that Anglos don't vote for it, they don't like us, things like that. Lack of sophistication, lack of all sorts of stuff.

When we asked the electorate what the biggest problem was, though, they said different things, a lot of different things. They said the biggest problems were local. The biggest problem they talked about was drainage — the custom in the Southwest is you don't pave the Mexican side of town. Then the second biggest problem was bad schools. That was very important to us — very, very important. Bad schools, bad municipal services — this is what was bugging the electorate. People came in with a lot of money every four years to herd the Mexicans to the polls to vote for a Democratic president, but the streets and the schools never got better. As a matter of fact, they got worse.

So we decided to do things differently, to gear our resources toward the elections that are important. And the elections that are important to the Hispanic and Indian electorate in the Southwest are local elections: school boards, city councils, county commissions, and then (if I must prioritize) state representatives, state senators, and then Congress and the rest.

Asking those questions was very important to us, because it told us something important. There is a strong role for research in this operation. Our first employee was a research director; I didn't even have a field director until after a while. I was doing all of the field work.

So now we knew something about why our people didn't register and vote and about what is bugging them. The next step was simple: let's do something about it. But that brought up a philosophical point: this isn't the national game plan, designed to get a particular party into power. This actually is a Mexican game plan, and an Indian game plan, to get Mexicans and Indians to win on the local level. And that is the difference. Mexicans are registering to vote now in record numbers in many areas. From 1978 to '82 there was an 86 percent increase in the total number of Mexicans voting in Texas alone. We were very proud when we found out that the Mexicans in New Mexico had outvoted the rest of the state in the 1982 elections, but the secretary of state there said, "That's not news; they've outvoted the rest of the state every year since 1978."

I feel that the reason why such large numbers of Mexicans are registering, why such large numbers are turning out, is that we are now gearing our resources to those elections that are important. That is the key. It is a Chicano-Indian game plan, our game plan, to get our people in power, to resolve those problems that are most hurting our community.

I'll turn now to the subject of just what a registration campaign is. First, we don't go to a city and tell people they ought to register and vote. We respond. After 542 campaigns, and after seeing their neighbors next door win an election, the Mexicans now call us and tell us, "We need a registration drive." "Why do you need a registration drive?" "We want somebody to get elected." "Why do you want somebody to get elected?" "Because we want to pave the streets." Or, "Because we want schools."

Some people drove down, with no appointment, nothing, from north Texas, about 650 miles, got in the car and drove to San Antonio, walked into our office. They said, "We need a registration drive in Hondo, Texas." Why? "Well, we have a bilingual program in our school, but not a single teacher can speak Spanish." So the first thing is to find the hot elections where something is hurting the Mexicans.

The second thing is training, and you spend almost as much time training as you do raising money for the campaign. Last year we did 93 campaigns, and at each site you form a coalition. Each site gets a two-hour training seminar. And at each site you pick the best of the bunch to be coordinator. Usually about 55 to 60 percent of the coordinators are women. Then you either bring that person to San Antonio or you have campaign manager training on site.

So you have a hot situation where people want to do something. You spend a lot of time on training. You build a coalition that includes all the responsible groups and even the irresponsible ones. You get the best person available, and you train her or him in basic, basic stuff.

Now what do you do? In the 542 campaigns that we've undertaken, we've learned one very important thing: there's no shortcut to registering voters. You've got to go from door to door in the precincts that are low in registration. On some Indian reservations, the next door may be five miles away, but you've still got to go from door to door.

That is what a registration drive is. But you can't undertake one everywhere. There are other factors that enter into deciding whether you ought to fund a campaign; there are other problems. For example, in 1977 when we first began a rural registration drive, we had to decide not to fund the first four areas we went into. We went through the whole process and then said we can't fund it because we can't win. The first four rural areas were all gerrymandered against Mexicans. We learned that from research. What good is it to do a registration drive if you can't win?

We thought it might be a coincidence that the first four rural areas were gerrymandered, but we thought we ought to look into it. Then we looked at five, 10, 20,40 — the next 66 towns in a row were all gerrymandered against Mexicans. Sixty-six in a row. That is against the law. That's against the state law, and that's against the federal law.

I remember the fourth county, Medina County. We went in there, we told them we can't do a registration drive. "Well, why? We're a large percentage of the population, we've never won, and we do good work." "Nope, can't do it." Look, that county, the last time the county commission redistricted was 1896. They ought to do it every 10 years, each census, but 1896! For 84 years the Mexicans have been running there, every year, and losing. You know, it reminds me of Charlie Brown: 583 games in a row he lost, right? And he says, "How can we lose when we're so sincere?" Well, that's the way the Mexicans were. They worked hard and everything, but they couldn't win. So that was the fourth county. And we did not find one county in the state of Texas gerrymandered for Mexicans. Now that's beyond the realm of statistical probability. You can't find 66 in a row against and not one for.

Our research department is able to figure out those kinds of things. The legal department takes the next step. Together with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and California Rural Legal Aid, New Mexico Rural Legal Aid, and Texas Rural Legal Aid, we have sued and settled out of court, or settled, or are currently negotiating with 63 jurisdictions. We've never lost a case. We failed to get remedies in two of the cases, but 61 out of 63 is pretty good — mostly because the gerrymandering is so bad, so obvious: 35 voters in one county commissioner's precinct and 1,500 in the adjoining, to name one example. Well, the law says the deviation can't be more than 10 percent. In that precinct, 17 people voted, eight from the same family. They elected their father county commissioner. Anybody with a law book could win that case. But there are 128 of these counties throughout the Southwest.

Now that's why I started changing my mind about Mexicans — about its being in our genes not to register and vote. Put yourself in the position of those people in Hondo, Texas — Medina County. For 84 years in a row you're losing; every year you come close to winning. Lose, lose, lose. Well, you're going to get depressed about the whole deal after a while; you're going to get depressed about the political process, think it doesn't work. And the reason you'd like to get somebody elected is because you want the street paved. You want a better school for your kids.

Actually, Mexicans vote a little bit like immigrants. We're unusual immigrants — some have been here 380 years, others came over last night — but we do exhibit traditional, immigrant, working-class voting behavior. It is our older people who vote. When I go to Pecos or Hondo, Texas, or to Eloy, Arizona, and I look around at the people, the troublemakers, who are bringing these outsiders in to register voters, I see older people. The ones they vote for tend to be younger, and sometimes the chair tends to be younger, but you know who it is that brings the outsiders in to do the registration drive? It is the mechanic who is 45 years old, the older person, the working person, the one with calluses on his hands. They are the ones who do it, and who are bringing a little bit of democracy to their communities.

Those people didn't always used to vote. In some of those places, elected office was a patrimony to be handed out to whoever was next in line: "Now it's Billy Joe Bob's turn to be county commissioner." But now the Mexicans come in; they want the votes counted, and they want the lines drawn, according to the law. That has happened many times before in our history.

Now it is happening again. In the United States we have a tremendous fount of good will toward our immigrant tradition — but never for the current immigration, always for the previous generations, for when our grandfathers came. And this is a repeat of history; only this time it's Mexicans, and it's good for the country. We didn't write the law. Somebody else did. But we want it applied. That's really what's happening in the Southwest.