A number of Southeast area cities have been targeted as part of a statewide push by a Texas-based group to register tens of thousands of Latinos for the November general election.
The nonpartisan Southwest Voter Registration Education Project has made California its top priority this fall, hoping to add nearly 80,000 Latinos to state voting rolls.
While precise numbers are hard to come by, there are about 1.1 million Latinos currently registered to vote in California, and another 925,000 are eligible but not registered, said William C. Velasquez, executive director of Southwest Voters.
Many of those potential Latino voters live in a cluster of cities that stretches from Hawaiian Gardens to Cudahy to Pico Rivera in the county's southeast corner. In half of the area's 22 cities, Latinos now make up a majority of the population.
Despite their growing numbers, local and national Latino leaders contend that Latinos are under-represented on school boards and city councils.
That's one reason this new push by Southwest Voters is so crucial, said George Medina, a 20-year Cerritos resident and longtime political activist. Getting Latinos into the democratic process by voting, Medina said, will eventually produce qualified Latino candidates to run for office on all levels of government.
"There are a lot of social problems not addressed because Hispanics are not in a position to do anything about them. . . ." Medina said. Problems like the high Latino school-dropout rate, inadequate housing and gangs continue to plague the Latino community, he said. "But until Hispanics mobilize, these problems will go unchecked," he said. "The ballot box can be a very important tool."
Latino business and civic leaders as well as elected officials in Bell, Bell Gardens, Commerce, Compton, Cudahy, Hawaiian Gardens, Maywood, Montebello, Pico Rivera, Norwalk, and South Gate have been contacted in recent weeks by the Southwest Voters group. Velasquez said volunteers are being recruited to go door-to-door in nearly 75 cities up and down the state.
The deadline is Oct. 7 to register new voters for the Nov. 4 election and Velasquez said his group plans to spend $250,000, nearly one-fourth of its annual budget, to get Latinos to the polls. Four full-time field directors are traveling the state, meeting with local officials.
California 'Farthest Behind'
"Compared to Latino voter turnout in the rest of the Southwest, California is the farthest behind," Velasquez said in a telephone interview last week from Las Vegas, where he was launching a similar voter drive in Nevada. Based in San Antonio, Southwest Voters was formed in the early 1970s, and since then, Velasquez and his small staff have been spreading the get-out-to-vote message as well as initiating almost 80 lawsuits to give Latinos a greater voice in government in 13 Western states. In Texas alone, Velasquez's group increased the number of registered voters from 8.4% in 1978 to nearly 23.6% or about 1 million voters.
Velasquez's new push into California closely follows a court order requiring Los Angeles County to launch a wide-ranging program to register poor and minority residents. Last month, a Superior Court judge ordered the county to begin immediately soliciting registrations in health clinics, welfare offices and other agencies with frequent public contact. Civil rights groups argued that low-income, nonwhite residents often fail to vote because they aren't sure how to register.
Although Velasquez has attempted voter drives in California before with some success, he described the latest effort as his group's biggest yet in a state that is now home to nearly 5.5 million Latinos. There are plans to open a permanent California office, probably in the Los Angeles area in January, and by the 1988 presidential election, Velasquez said, the privately financed group will spend more than $1 million to register and educate Latino voters.
The group doesn't actually do the legwork but simply helps local officials organize their own voter drives by supplying a money and training. "It's up to local officials to find the bodies and energy," said Richard Martinez, one of Southwest Voters' field directors.
Seeking All Who Want to Vote
While the group is targeting areas that are predominately Latino, he said volunteers are instructed not to be selective and to register anyone they come in contact with who is eligible and wants to vote.
In Norwalk, newly elected Councilwoman Grace Napolitano said because she feels more Latinos must be coaxed to the polls, she has volunteered to walk precincts to register new voters.