The Southwest Voter Registration Education Project was founded in San Antonio in 1974 by William C. Velásquez and a group of fellow Mexican-American political activists to ensure the voting rights of their people in the Southwest and thereby provide them "meaningful political participation," a prerogative that they had largely been denied before the mid-1960s. SVREP was charted as a politically nonpartisan organization pledged solely to be an advocate for the functionally disfranchised. With such a commitment, it allied itself with the civil-rights movementv to overturn segregation in the state. The organization grew out of the Citizens' Voter Research and Education Project, which Velásquez organized during his tenure as an assistant field director and fund-raiser with the National Council of La Raza between 1971–72. In 1974, after a two-year period of working full-time on the project, Velásquez set it up as independent entity and named it the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project. Financially, SVREP relied on private donations and grants from such sources as the Ford and the Carnegie foundations. By one account, the project modeled itself on voter-registration strategies used in the South among African Americans. Under the motto "su voto es su voz" ("your vote is your voice"), SVREP developed a unique combination of door-to-door registration drives and research on the Mexican-American electorate. It was headquartered in San Antonio and by 1991 was chartered to operated in thirteen southwestern states. The organization has also fought for the voting rights of American Indians, Blacks, and other minority groups.
Velásquez was its first executive director and was named its first president in 1986; he served until his death in 1988. Later, Andrew Hernández was named to fill the presidency. Under Velásquez, SVREP developed into a fully staffed organization with a board of directors and projects conducted under eight directives. Of these, six are related to voter-registration drives and education, one to litigation, and another to research. Eventually, SVREP set up regional planning committees in each state where it operated. Less than a decade after its start, SVREP averaged more than a hundred voter-registration campaigns a year in the Southwest. By the late 1980s it had completed a thousand such drives. SVREP is credited with doubling the number of Mexican Americans registered to vote in Texas, from about 400,000 in 1980 to 1.2 million by the end of Velásquez's tenure in 1988. This growth has contributed much to the increase in Hispanic elected officials. In Texas, for instance, the number of Mexican Americans holding public office increased from 565 in 1973 to 1,572 in 1988. SVREP has usually focused on local rather than national issues and elections, putting its efforts into improving Hispanic representation in city councils, school boards, and county and state offices. Velásquez believed that "The most important elections are local. We voted for Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy. [That] didn't pave the streets." In taking this approach, SVREP heeded the results of its own research, which showed that Mexican Americans' greatest discontent was with the poor quality of municipal services and education.
SVREP has also used the judicial process. In 1979 it opened its litigation department in response to complaints about voter fraud and abuse. This new weapon was aided by the extension of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to the Southwest in 1975. Because this legislation was specifically meant to remove structural obstacles to political access, SVREP has often targeted public officials who ignored federal voting laws and exploited elections for their own interests. Such groups as the Mexican American Legal Defence and Educational Fund, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and both the Hispanic and Black caucuses of the state legislature have joined with SVREP in fighting some of these battles. By 1991 SVREP had won eighty-five lawsuits against local jurisdictions. These victories convinced some other municipalities to negotiate with SVREP rather than go to court. SVREP has helped to make Mexican Americans in Texas a powerful bloc that is part of a permanently changed political map."
In 1984 the SVREP research unit was separately chartered under the name Southwest Voter Research Institute. Its purpose was to do research leading to improved political participation of Hispanics. By 1986 the institute was publishing reports on such subjects as redistricting and election exit polls. It also organized a project to help shape United States policy in Latin America. The Latin American Project's best-known effort was a report on a fact-finding tour of United States Hispanic leaders, including Velásquez, to Nicaragua and Costa Rica in January 1988. The tour produced a Hispanic perspective on the Central American Peace Plan, which was delivered to the Hispanic Congressional Caucus and discussed in a roundtable meeting sponsored at the Roosevelt Center in Washington. A long-term goal of the project was to furnish SVREP's voter-registration and education techniques to Latin-American countries.
SVREP suffered a funding blow in 1986, when its income fell from $1 million to $600,000. The decline occurred when Senator Alan Cranston (D-California) approached SVREP with an offer to raise funds for expanding its voter-registration drives but later added the new funds to his own voter-registration organization in California, where he faced a difficult election challenge. SVREP saw this move as an attempt to return to the old days of delivering the Hispanic vote to a particular candidate rather than encouraging Mexican Americans to make up their own minds. SVREP head Hernández asserted that the Cranston effort mirrored "patrón" politics, by which "voters are registered every four years, but...the schools don't get any better." Under Hernández's leadership, SVREP continued its program of voter registration and education.