Southwest group fights Hispanics' feeling that voting is futile

Mexican-Americans here, some registering to vote for the first time in years, occasionally still ask, ''Quanto cuesta?,'' that is, ''How much does it cost?'' In Texas, the poll tax was dropped more than 20 years ago. But it has taken longer to shake the attitude among Mexican-Americans that voting is futile.

The Hispanic bloc is looming ever larger in electoral politics because of its sheer numbers, especially in the Southwest. But the American Latino is still less likely to vote than Americans in general.

Mexican-Americans who felt their vote was virtually worthless have frequently been right, notes Willie Velasquez, a leading voting-rights activist. Their votes were lost in gerrymandered and at-large districts that kept Latinos always in the minority.

A group of organizers and researchers here, the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, has been a major player in fighting that sense of political futility in Latino communities. And to a large extent, SVREP has been responsible for reversing the trend away from the polls.

Mr. Velasquez, the strong-faced SVREP director with a blunt, machine-gun intensity, aims to have a million more Hispanics registered to vote by the election this November than the 3.5 million registered in 1980.

In Texas, where Hispanic voters were a solid core of support for Walter F. Mondale in Democratic caucuses last weekend, the number of Hispanics registered to vote has nearly doubled since June 1976.

The attitude that Velasquez and his colleagues are battling is cynicism toward politics and politicians. He recalls a disillusioned Latino who voted for Democratic presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy, and still, he said, ''my street isn't paved.''

SVREP follows a clear-cut battle plan. The group finds local campaigns throughout the Southwest that are popular with the Latino community, then organizes local groups to register voters household by household.

To reach the national goal of a million new Hispanics on the rolls, Velasquez says, ''We think it will take 300 campaigns.'' SVREP will handle 200 of them; a smaller counterpart in the Midwest will do another 75; and a new project in the Northeast is just being launched to handle between 25 and 50 campaigns among Puerto Ricans.

''You just do a lot of campaigns,'' Velasquez says. ''It's that kind of problem.''

And very few of them are campaigns for national office. Local issues and local candidates, rather than the glamour of national contests, are most compelling to community-minded Hispanics.

Only four out of 93 campaigns SVREP worked on last year were congressional. The other 89 were for school board members, city councillors, county supervisors , and other local offices.

But when a voter registers to vote in a local race, of course, he is registered to vote for United States senator and president as well.

In some south Texas counties where SVREP has been most active, Hispanic registration levels are up to 90 percent of those eligible. In New Mexico, where Hispanics are in the majority, they vote in higher proportions than Anglos.

''We find the most effective registration work is done where Hispanics can see a victory for someone who represents their interests,'' explains Robert Brischetto, SVREP research director.

''They can vote for someone attractive to them like JFK (whose image still appears on the office walls of many Latino leaders), and still not see a difference in their streets or their schools.''

In general, 1 of every 2 American adults votes. Among Hispanics, 1 of 3 votes , says Dr. Brischetto.

Youth and lack of US citizenship are part of the explanation for low Hispanic participation. When the number of Hispanics who are not US citizens are subtracted from their numbers, Brischetto notes, Hispanic voter participation is similar to that of blacks. And young adults generally vote less frequently than their elders.

But history also plays a role. Texas political tradition, says Velasquez, was ''you didn't pay any attention to the Mexican side of town.'' City council seats elected at-large (all seats elected by everybody rather than one seat per district) helped to drown out Latino votes.

In 1970, only four of the 52 Texas cities with 52,000 people or more had single-member council districts. In 1980, 20 cities were using districts, and 32 were still electing at-large.

Since then, Brischetto says, ''they're falling like flies.'' And Velasquez predicts that by summer, more than 30 of the cities will have gone to single-member districts.

SVREP, which regularly sues cities with at-large council or school board seats, is now looking at cities in Los Angeles and San Diego counties.

This kind of reform is important to Latino voters, and has profoundly changed the composition of city councils in cities like San Antonio.

Latino voters are less individualistic than Americans in general, says Brischetto, and this affects voting in two ways. First, the majority of Latinos registered to vote have been signed up by organizations, such as SVREP or union locals. ''If you rely on them to register themselves, they just don't,'' Velasquez says. Second, the endorsements of trusted local civic leaders are more influential with Hispanics than they are with other voters.

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