Fight over voting rights in Texas has San Antonio roots

‘System was rigged’ before Willie Velasquez fought back, says longtime attorney

SAN ANTONIO – Before the late Willie Velasquez took up the fight for voting rights, “Latinos would go out to vote and vote in large numbers, but their candidates would continually lose,” Velasquez’s longtime friend, Rolando Rios, said.

Rios, a Georgetown University law student at the time, worked alongside Velasquez, who founded the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project in 1974.

“He got people registered, but then he realized registration is not enough,” said Rios, now a longtime voting rights attorney. “We needed to change the system.”

He said “the system was rigged” by gerrymandering and at-large voting.

Rios said the lawsuits they filed led to changes still in existence. An example, he said, is that the San Antonio City Council now has single-member districts that better represent the constituents who live in those areas.

Rios said if his friend had lived to see the current standoff over voting rights, Velasquez would be fighting alongside lawmakers.

“Right now, Willie would be at the leadership table in Washington with our state reps,” Rios said.

More than 50 Texas House Democrats are in the nation’s capital, leaving the House of Representatives without a quorum to vote on legislation they’ve said would make it harder to vote.

Supporters have said the bills would protect election integrity, but Rios said, “They want to change the process of electing.”

He said the bills resulted from the U.S. Supreme Court gutting Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which required states like Texas -- with a history of discrimination -- to undergo preclearance by the U.S. Justice Department before making any changes in elections.

The Texas lawmakers also are in Washington to push for federal legislation that would reinstate many of the protections covered under the Voting Rights Act.

Rios has testified at a Congressional field hearing in Brownsville in support of that legislation, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the We the People Act.

Rios said both he and Velasquez also had testified before Congress in the 1980s in support of extending the Voting Rights Act.

Although Latinos have made significant gains, Rios said proving discrimination is still possible.

“The progress made is making Texas more aggressive in their efforts to keep us from voting and maintain power,” Rios said.

About the Authors:

Jessie Degollado has been with KSAT since 1984. She is a general assignments reporter who covers a wide variety of stories. Raised in Laredo and as an anchor/reporter at KRGV in the Rio Grande Valley, Jessie is especially familiar with border and immigration issues. In 2007, Jessie also was inducted into the San Antonio Women's Hall of Fame.

William Caldera has been at KSAT since 2003. He covers a wide range of stories including breaking news, weather, general assignments and sports.