From left: Students Jasmine Barrera, Louis Lor and Liana Smoot register to vote with Pamela Orr at McCallum High School in Austin. Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune
MCALLEN — Less than six weeks out from primary day in Texas, Amanda Edwards, among the leading Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate, made a campaign stop in the Rio Grande Valley, where she stressed at a small forum the importance of elevating new voices.
“We have to bring people to the table so that they’re not on the menu,” the former Houston City Council member said at the January event. “And one of the things that’s critically important is when we bring them to the table, then we have to deliver.”
It was a fitting message, given that the forum was organized not by a seasoned political organization but by a group of local high school students.
Young and Hispanic Texans turned out in record numbers for a midterm in 2018, when voters under 30 nearly doubled their vote share compared with the 2014 midterms and came close to matching participation levels from the 2016 presidential election. Among that age group, Hispanic voters made up 30% of the vote share in 2018 — a 10% increase from 2014, according to TargetSmart, a political data firm.
Now, in a year when candidates and campaigns are recalibrating and reprioritizing which Texans to reach out to because of that enthusiasm, the big question is: Will more voter registrations translate into an even higher turnout by first-time voters in 2020?
Flashes of electoral enthusiasm are cropping up across the state — at student-led civic events like the McAllen Senate forum, in growing efforts to register eligible high school students after a law aimed at boosting their participation had been largely ignored, and in the sense of urgency some students say they feel as they prepare to vote this year, many of them for the first time.
Students in McAllen, a border city whose population is 85% Hispanic, said candidates have historically overlooked the Valley’s youth. They say they want a seat at Edwards’ metaphorical table — and elected officials who will listen to them.
“Youth down here, we’re not asking for a lot,” said Jonah Riojas, the 17-year-old student who organized the McAllen forum. “We’re not asking for the impossible. We’re just asking that our voices are heard and that there’s some sort of effort or fight to make a difference.”
Hispanic youth vote grows
Voting rights groups are hoping to capitalize on the momentum of the 2018 midterm elections, when increased participation among young and Hispanic voters helped Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke come within three points of unseating Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.
Given the state’s demographics — 43% of Texans are under 30 and 40% are Hispanic — high school outreach in Texas often overlaps with Latino-targeted outreach, said Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, a lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs.
“When we say ‘youth vote,’ the overwhelming majority of the youth in Texas are Latino,” DeFrancesco Soto said, adding that she thinks youth turnout will increase again in this year’s elections. As more campaigns try to court Latino voters, “there seems to be an added urgency in terms of the racial, ethnic and migrant-based rhetoric,” she said.
But on the whole, youth organizing groups say campaigns still have a lot of work to do in Texas, especially among Latinos.
“There’s this stigma that because we are in the Valley, we are stuck in these subservient statuses, or once you’re in the Valley, you’re stuck in the Valley,” Riojas said. “For youth in the Valley specifically, we’ve been kind of degraded and overlooked.”
A poll released Feb. 18 by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University found that 66% of millennial and Gen Z Texans polled — and 75% of Latinos in that age group — have not heard from a campaign or political party.
At the same time, young people in Texas are tuning in politically now more than ever, said Stephanie Gómez, high school voter campaign coordinator at the Texas Civil Rights Project. Students who will be first-time voters this year say they have been following climate change activism on social media and hosting debate watch parties with friends.
“Texas youth are not apathetic,” Gómez said. “It’s that there are a lot of barriers in front of them to get them to vote, and that shouldn’t be the case, but it is, unfortunately, the case in Texas.”
Complying with the law
In an effort to boost Texas’ chronically low turnout among young voters, state lawmakers passed a bill in 1983 requiring principals or other designated registrars to circulate voter registration forms to eligible students — those age 17 years and 10 months — at least twice a year.
But the law didn’t include penalties for noncompliance, and many high schools have apparently ignored it: Just 14% of Texas public high schools with at least 20 seniors requested voter registration applications from the secretary of state ahead of the 2016 general elections, and no private school requested the applications, according to the Texas Civil Rights Project, which tracks compliance with the law.
High schools can register students using forms they get elsewhere, which the Civil Rights Project can’t track, but when the group has surveyed principals, it still found high levels of noncompliance.
The group’s latest data shows compliance has dramatically increased across the state since 2016, notably in urban areas, thanks in part to ramped-up efforts by grassroots groups that go into classrooms and register students themselves, Gómez said.
Ahead of the 2018 general elections, the Texas Civil Rights Project found that some form of voter registration activity occurred at 38% of Texas public high schools: 22% requested forms, 11% utilized an outside group’s registration drive and 5% did both, according to the group, which also found that 27 private schools requested voter registration forms.
Some of the state’s largest counties have led the increase: Between the 2016 and 2018 elections, compliance in Travis, Bexar and Harris counties jumped from 12% or less to 68%, 59% and 57%, respectively.
“The Office of the Texas Secretary of State is committed to ensuring that high school students who are eligible or will soon be eligible to vote are informed about how to register so they can play an active role in our democratic process,” Communications Director Stephen Chang said in a written statement, adding that the office provides voter registration forms to all high school principals upon request “and will continue to work with schools and organizations to make readily available the resources that they need to register students.”
But in Texas, which has some of the strictest voting laws in the country, the Texas Civil Rights Project wants the secretary of state to do more, including automatically sending registration forms to all high schools each year.
“A 38% compliance rate … is not enough,” Gómez said. “Our youth need to be registered. They need to be civically engaged. If you talk to anyone, they’re not going to look at you and be like, ‘No, I don’t think youth should be voting,’ so if that’s really, as a state, what we believe, why are we not taking the steps to make sure that is happening?”
Filling the gaps
In Harris County, local volunteers with the League of Women Voters have been registering eligible students at each of the high schools in Cypress-Fairbanks ISD.
At many high schools that comply with the registration law, a designated teacher takes time out of class to register eligible students, who are usually seniors. But the process, which includes requesting the forms from the secretary of state and delivering the completed forms to the local county clerk’s office, can be difficult for teachers and schools to keep up with, said Marlene Lobberecht, president of the League of Women Voters’ Cy-Fair chapter.
“Teachers appreciate the great relationship that CFISD has with the League of Women Voters and the assistance with voter registration,” Leslie Francis, the district’s assistant superintendent for communication and community relations, said in a statement. “The LWV does an excellent job of presenting voter registration information to our students.”
Now the volunteers have their routine down to a science — a team of five or six can register between 100 and 180 students in a single day, Lobberecht said. So far this year, she said, her chapter has registered 1,474 seniors.
“We can do a voter registration drive within 10 to 12 minutes,” she said. “Then we go to the next class and do it again.”
In some high schools, staff members are taking their own initiative. This year, Jain Thompson, a librarian at McCallum High School in Austin, started offering additional registration opportunities in the library.
Thompson said she registered 104 students in time to vote in Texas’ March 3 primary. On a recent Friday, she went class to class in a final push to register seniors before the deadline.
In one classroom she visited, everyone who was eligible to vote was already registered. (“Yes, ma’am,” they said in unison when Thompson asked.) In another, several students wanted to register but were disappointed to learn they fell just shy of Texas’ minimum age requirement. Thompson returned to the library with four eligible seniors in tow.
Senior Ruby Del Valle said she and all her friends will definitely vote, even if it means missing part of the school day.
“Maybe some people will just skip the whole day,” Del Valle said. “I’m not really a skipper, and I have a basketball game that day, so I don’t know if I’ll be able to. But hopefully.”
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin, the Texas Secretary of State and the League of Women Voters have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.