The Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, a voting rights group that has registered more than a million voters in the Southwest, has opened a Los Angeles office as part of a stepped-up effort to politically organize the state's Latinos.
Over the next four years, the organization plans to spend $1 million to register up to 500,000 additional Latino voters and challenge in the courts and in the Legislature what it considers discriminatory election practices, said Richard Martinez, the project's field director.
"The bulk of our activities will focus on California from now on," Martinez said in an interview. His San Antonio-based group has been most active in Texas and New Mexico.
Although the project has conducted 230 voter registration drives in the state since the early 1970s, this will be the first time the group, which is supported by private contributions and grants, has had a permanent presence in the state, he said.
"It's clear that California ought to be the state with the highest registration and highest turnout," said William Velasquez, executive director of the project. "Instead, Hispanics aren't taken seriously politically . . . and the trend is getting worse."
Although the state has the largest number of voting-age Latinos, he said, California has a proportionally smaller voting bloc than Texas and New Mexico. Given the state's overall affluence and educational level, Velasquez contends that it should have the highest level of Latino registration of any of the Southwest states.
However, California has barely more Latino voters registered than Texas, which has a Latino population only two-thirds as large, he said. In some California counties, Latino registration is below 30%, he said.
Plans are under way to bring scores of lawsuits against California cities, counties and governing boards to overturn the at-large election system prevalent in the state. Since its inception in 1974, the nonpartisan group has filed 86 challenges to at-large systems throughout the Southwest and won the bulk of them, Velasquez said.
Southwest officials contend that at-large systems are inherently discriminatory because the minority voting blocs within cities are inevitably defeated by surrounding white majorities. In the lawsuits, the project sought single-member district elections as a replacement.
The project, which is working with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union and a coalition of attorneys, will start filing lawsuits as early as August, Martinez said.
Two years ago, federal judges ruled against challenges that the project filed against Pomona and Watsonville. Those cases are currently on appeal.
Ken Emanuels, a spokesman for the League of California Cities, said the California political climate differs from Texas, where the project took on blatant cases of discrimination. The two trial court losses indicate that the group may have trouble establishing a legal foothold here, he said.
The voter project is also backing bills carried by Assemblyman Peter Chacon (D-San Diego) that would change the election format for school boards and general law cities. Chacon said he welcomes the project's California drive and hopes the threat of lawsuits will add pressure to pass his legislation, which failed in committee seven years ago.
"The timing could not be any better," he said. "Their interests and my interests dovetailed, and now we're working together."
Working with a network of Latino leaders from San Diego to Sacramento, the project will try to sign up another 500,000 voters over the next four years through upwards of 60 registration drives, Martinez said.
Terry Christensen, a political science professor at San Jose State University and an expert on California politics, said that if the project is successful it could change state politics.
"There could be a very, very significant effect," Christensen said, likening the Latino vote to a sleeping giant. "The biggest untapped force in California politics is the Mexican-American vote because of the lower voter turnout and small number of registered voters. But I suspect it could have more effect on statewide and city races than legislative races or the national level."