By John P. Schmal
The act of voting is one of the most important privileges of American citizenship. Through this action, Americans can choose their leaders and attempt to make changes in governmental policy. For many Americans, the act of voting is the most significant manifestation of American citizenship.
The Fifteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, ratified in 1870, promised that “the rights of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” In theory this amendment gave Mexican Americans, African Americans, Asian immigrants, and other minorities a voice in both local and national politics.
However, the Federal Government, from time to time, has taken action against certain alien groups. For example, the Chinese Exclusion Acts of 1882 and 1892 effectively stopped Chinese immigration and denied citizenship to Chinese people living in the United States. In addition, the Federal Government also gave each state broad powers to set up its own qualifications and restrictions for voters. These restrictions varied considerably from one state to another, but, over time, state governments would employ a plethora of insidious tactics in an effort to prevent African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latino Americans from exercising their voting rights.
In 1889, Florida enacted a poll tax that would effectively keep poor Blacks out of the voting booth. Eleven more Southern states followed suit and enacted their own poll taxes. In 1901, the Texas Legislature passed its own poll tax, which required voters to pay $1.75 at the voting booth. In November 1902, Texas voters ratified the poll tax by a two-to-one margin. Such an expense was effective in keeping many poor Tejanos from exercising their right to vote. In effect, the poll tax was able to circumvent the rights that had been guaranteed to Tejano citizens by the Fourteenth Amendment.
In California, strong anti-immigrant sentiment against Asians, Eastern Europeans, and Latin Americans led to a more unique undermining of voting rights. In 1894, the people of California voted to approve an English literacy requirement for California’s voting booth. Because of these restrictions on the voting rights of Mexican-American citizens, many native-born American citizens who were uneducated or whose primary language was Spanish were unable to vote. Both the poll tax and the literacy requirement stayed in effect for several decades until they were declared unconstitutional in court cases.
At the end of World War II, a new generation of Latinos returned to America from their overseas duties. The young Hispanic soldiers who had defended America so bravely on the battlefields of Europe and Asia returned home with new ideas about their rights as citizens and, in particular, about their rights as voters. The Federal Government - which had been so effective in enacting anti-immigrant and anti-minority legislation - provided these young veterans with the weapon of education.
The G.I. Bill Act of June 22, 1944 - or the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act put higher education within the reach of thousands of Chicano veterans. Over the next decade, Mexican-American veterans attended local and nationwide colleges and universities to obtain college degrees. Armed with the weapon of education, the veterans formed organizations that advocated for Hispanic voting rights in many parts of the country.
The American G.I. Forum, founded in March 1948, was organized by Mexican-American veterans in Texas. When a funeral home denied use of its facilities for the wake of a decorated veteran, Felix Z. Longoria, the incident received national coverage and helped the G.I. Forum to consolidate its power base and grow into a national organization.
Stressing their patriotism and service to country, the Forum campaigned to increase electoral participation in the political arena. In 1949 and 1950, they initiated local “pay your poll tax” drives to register Tejano voters. Although they were unable to repeal the tax, their efforts did bring in new Hispanic voters who would begin to elect Tejano representatives to the Texas House of Representatives and to Congress during the late 1950s and early 1960s.
In California, a similar phenomenon took place. When World War II veteran Edward R. Roybal ran for a seat on the Los Angeles City Council, community activists established the CSO (Community Service Organization). The CSO was effective in registering 15,000 new voters in the Latino neighborhoods of Boyle Heights, Belvedere, and East Los Angeles. With this newfound support, Roybal was able to win the 1949 election race against the incumbent Anglo councilman and become the first Mexican American since 1886 to win a seat on the Los Angeles City Council.
The Mexican American Political Association (MAPA), founded in Fresno, California came into being in 1959 and drew up a plan for direct electoral politics. MAPA soon became the primary political voice for the Mexican-American community of California. Edward Roybal, elected the first president of MAPA, would become the first Chicano representative to Congress from Los Angeles in the Twentieth Century, in large part because of the efforts of MAPA and the CSO.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 gave African Americans access to the voting booth in places where access had previously been denied to them. The law was so effective that a quarter of a million new Black voters had been registered to vote by the end of the year.
Latino activist groups took note of this fact and began to believe that it could do the same for Chicano voters in the Southwest. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) soon began to lobby intensely for the extension of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) to Latinos. Upon hearing extensive testimony about voting discrimination that had been suffered by Hispanic, Asian and Native American citizens, Congress responded to these lobbying efforts in 1975 by amending the Voting Rights Act to include provisions that affected Latinos and “minority-language citizens.”
The revised Act now prohibited discriminatory election devices, including both literacy tests and poll taxes. The Act also required bilingual ballots in areas where a minority group exceeded 5 percent of the vote, and it safeguarded minorities against gerrymandering schemes that would dilute the power of their vote. These legislative interventions permitted that Latino voting base to expand.
The Voting Rights Act and the judicial invalidation of literacy tests and poll taxes led to a gradual increase in Latino participation around the country.
According to census information, the Latino population reached 35,305,818 in 2000, representing 12.5% of the national population. Voter registration of Latinos has increased dramatically in the last decade and political candidates from all parties have begun to recognize that the highly diverse Latino population cannot be ignored nor can it be taken for granted.
Today, some Americans take the act of voting for granted. However, anyone who studies the long struggle for Latino and African-American representation in the United States will realize that voting is, indeed, a privilege not to be taken for granted.
Schmal is an historian and genealogist, specializing in Mexico and the Southwestern U.S. He has published four books and, in recent months, has written several articles discussing various aspects of Latino representation in American government.