Registering young Latinos to vote: The Time is Now
By Joe Olvera
When the late William C. Velasquez first created the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project in 1974, he had only one vision – to work for a time when Latinos would play a vital part in the American Democratic Process. His mantra, which continues to this day, was “Su Voto Es Su Voz (Your Vote Is Your Voice).”
Velasquez, who died an untimely death in 1988 of kidney cancer, had, by the time of his death, cultivated 50,000 community leaders throughout Texas, litigated successfully 85 voting rights law suits, and conducted 2,300 non-partisan voter registration drives. Latinos also went from counting 2.4 million registered Latino voters in 1974, to more than 7 million by 1998. And, the process continues.
Reyes Mata, president of the project’s committee, is a young entrepreneur who wants to make drastic changes to El Paso’s artistic scene. Politically connected and involved, he too is looking forward to a time when Chicanos and other Latinos can become major players in SVREP’s goal of increasing voter participation by Latinos, something that’s already happening judging by the number of newly registered young Latinos, and, youths registering to vote is what Velasquez truly envisioned.
“We definitely need more Chicanos and other Latinos to become involved in our political process,” Mata said. “SVREP began its Million Dollar Youth Campaign on Cinco de Mayo in 2006. The goal was to register 100,000 sons and daughters of immigrants, seeking out youth who are U.S. citizens, eligible to vote, but, who haven’t yet registered. That number was surpassed, and continues to grow. This was evidenced by the large numbers of Latino youth who registered and voted for Barack Obama for President of the United States.
SVREP President Antonio Gonzalez said in 2006 that registering Latino youth would create a substantial number of young voters that could, in time, carry elections. “The timing for this campaign (2006) will crystallize the momentum,” Gonzalez said in the organization’s website. “Participation by Latino youth in the marches and rallies for immigration reform demonstrates how prepared they are to political change.”
The multi-phase, multi-media campaign will try to capture their imagination because there are about 2.3 million young men and women between the ages of 18 and 24 who are U.S. citizens and ready to vote. At least one million American citizens who are eligible to vote turn 18 each year. This number alone makes it very important that these youths become involved in the political process. This group alone can impact elections in a very strong manner.
Priscilla Portillo, who is the SVREP Team Coordinator in El Paso, was not available for comment, but, she has said in the past that her goal is to register as many young Latinos as is possible. In El Paso, the task becomes even harder because there is very little tradition for voting and voting rights.