Latinos are the second largest group of voters in the United States, and each year, 1 million become eligible to cast ballots. As with any community that has long faced discrimination—and attacks on their voting rights—the challenge has been to expand registration and increase Election Day impact.
Numerous organizations have embraced the Latino voting rights mission, working to amplify the many voices of this population—which, far from being homogenous, is diverse both racially and by country of origin. Most of the groups emerged in the mid-1960s and ’70s, strongly inspired by the Black civil rights movement and, in some cases, assisted by its leadership.
Until that time, according to a 2009 study of racial voting rights in America by the National Historic Landmarks Program, Hispanic Americans were consumed with other civil rights battles—from school segregation and citizenship challenges to housing and employment discrimination. But in 1965, the national Voting Rights Act elevated political participation on their agenda. By 1975, Latino groups had successfully lobbied for an amendment to that law, which specifically lifted barriers to non-English-speaking voters.
Here are six groups that historically made a significant impact on growing and empowering the Latino electorate:
The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC)
Established in 1929 in Texas as a merger of several smaller Mexican American organizations, LULAC remains the country’s oldest Latino civil rights organization focusing broadly on justice, education, housing and employment, in addition to voting rights. At its formation, the group took inspiration from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and one of its founders, W.E.B. DuBois, in its efforts to advocate for community rights and end discrimination. LULAC’s earliest political efforts included lobbying to repeal a poll tax in several states and voter registration drives nationwide. In the 1960 election, LULAC was instrumental in developing Viva Kennedy clubs in Texas, a milestone effort that resulted not only in support for the Democratic presidential candidate, but served as a turning point in the mobilization of both Mexican American voters and candidates for political office.
The US Hispanic Leadership Institute (USHLI)
Based in Chicago, the USHLI traces its roots to a meeting in 1971 between several Mexican American activists and civil rights leader John Lewis. At the time, Lewis ran the Voter Education Project (VEP), an organization focused on increasing Black voter registration in the South following the 1965 Voting Rights Act. These Mexican American leaders asked Lewis to expand VEP’s efforts into the Southwest and Midwest, and young activist Juan Andrade went to work with Lewis, becoming VEP’s Texas state coordinator. Andrade later established the Midwest Voter Registration Project in Ohio, modeling it after VEP; that later became the USHLI in Chicago, promoting its mantra of “maximizing participation in the electoral process.”
Southwest Voter Registration Education Project (SVREP)
John Lewis was also pivotal in helping establish SVREP in San Antonio in 1974, with the mission of expanding Latino voters and protecting them from disenfranchisement by such barriers as poll taxes and English literacy tests. SVREP founder Willie Velásquez, an iconic figure in Latino voting rights, grew the organization, coining the phrase, “Tu Voto Es Tu Voz” (“Your Vote is Your Voice). By the time of his untimely death in 1988, SVREP had supported hundreds of Latino political candidates, led hundreds of nonpartisan voter drives in poor, underrepresented Latino communities and successfully fought more than 75 lawsuits to help undo gerrymandering, eliminate language barriers and other voter suppression practices. SVREP also developed a polling and research arm to study Latino voting patterns.
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Together, the USHLI and the SVREP have registered more than 5 million voters.
The United Farm Workers Union
Co-started in 1962 in California by labor activists César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, the UFW began as an effort to advocate for the rights of agricultural workers. It expanded to include other efforts, including voter registration. “We don’t need perfect political systems; we need perfect participation,” said Chávez, who stressed that community empowerment begins at the voting booth. Active in farming communities across California and other states, the UFW has effectively used its labor organizing as a base to expand voter registration efforts, particularly among Chicano workers. Huerta continued those efforts through the Dolores Huerta Foundation for Community Organizing, established in 2003.
Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF)
From its founding in 1968, MALDEF has long worked to battle voter suppression, using the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund as a model. In 1970, it successfully challenged a Texas legislative initiative that created “mega districts,” which the U.S. Supreme Court later ruled unconstitutional for inhibiting minority voter participation. That ruling led to an expansion of the Voting Rights Act to include “language minorities,” offering bilingual ballots and voting instructions.
Read more stories about Hispanic Heritage here.
Created in 1972 in New York City as the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, LatinoJustice was instrumental in making bilingual voting materials (including ballots) a requirement and widely available—not just for the Spanish-speaking community but also for other language-minority communities. The group has successfully challenged other suppressive voting practices, including the failure to provide bilingual assistance at the voting booth.
Other Influential Latino Civil Rights Organizations:
Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA)
National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO)