‘Hey, guys, this is your voice.’ How Texas is pushing students to be heard

Dunbar High seniors registering to vote

Dunbar High School Principal Sajade Miller is actively encouraging voter-eligible students to register in time for the Nov. 7 election. The school has created a campus "Go Center," where students can register.
Up Next
Dunbar High School Principal Sajade Miller is actively encouraging voter-eligible students to register in time for the Nov. 7 election. The school has created a campus "Go Center," where students can register.

A recent civics lesson at Dunbar High School started with a movie clip depicting civil rights marches in 1960s Selma, Ala., and ended with Anterrian Dixon realizing he will be 18 on Nov. 7, when Texans head to the polls to vote on constitutional amendments and bond elections.

The Nov. 7 election doesn’t carry national attention of a presidential race, but Dixon said he wants to know more about a proposed $749.7 million bond program for Fort Worth schools.

“I feel like education is important,” Dixon said, adding that he wants to know how Dunbar stands to benefit from the bond program. “I want younger people to go to college.”

With a push from Texas Secretary of State Rolando Pablos, Dixon is among the potential voters the state hopes to enlist for upcoming elections. The last day to register to vote is Oct. 10.

Pablos is urging high school principals and superintendents to support the 2017 High School Voter Registration Initiative, which aims for Texas to better comply with a law that allows young voters to register at high schools.

The Texas Civil Rights Project found that not enough high schools are abiding by this law. In 2016, only 198 out of 1,428 high schools requested voter registration cards.

“The vast, vast majority of schools are not requesting the forms from the secretary of state’s office,” said Cassandra Champion, staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project.

Voter rights advocates have long said that too many young Texans aren’t exercising their right to vote — a deep concern for a state with one of the youngest and diverse voting age populations.

This is not a story of millennials being lazy. This is a story of there being barriers for everyone to vote.

Emily M. Farris, TCU assistant professor

There are 173,672 Texans who are 18 and registered to vote, including 13,096 in Tarrant County, according to the state. Both numbers represent about half of the eligible voters in that age group, according to U.S. Census data.

And with another election approaching No. 7 — and with many school districts holding multimillion dollar bond elections — voter registration efforts are ramping up before the Oct. 10 deadline.

‘Definitely have a passion’

As part of the state’s registration drive, voter education is underway at several area high schools, including Fort Worth’s Dunbar, Arlington Heights and Paschal.

Throughout the school year, students who are about to turn 18 are encouraged to register at educational events tied to economics and government lessons. At Paschal, students were encouraged to register Tuesday — National Voter Registration Day. There are about 150 seniors who will be 18 by the November election, said Nicole Graham, school librarian and a voter registrar.

Emily M. Farris, an assistant professor of political science at TCU, said it’s important to know that young people today volunteer more than previous generations and are typically more educated than older voters were at their age. Their time to resonate at the polls hasn’t arrived, but Farris finds clues in groups that have emerged since the presidential elections to push various issues, including immigration.

“This is not a story of millennials being lazy,” Farris said. “This is a story of there being barriers for everyone to vote.”

Paschal’s Graham said teens tell her they want to be involved in their communities and wonder how to get more engaged. Many don’t know how to get registered or feel unfamiliar with a process that includes a lag time between the day they register and Election Day, she said. Voting machines can be confusing for first-time voters, she said.

“The kids I see on a daily basis definitely have a passion, they just don’t know what to do with it,” said Graham, adding that she tells them: “You can register to vote.”

Similar discussions are taking place at Dunbar High School.

“You can’t be a leader in the community if you don’t vote,” said Dunbar High School Principal Sajade Miller. “Your vote is your voice.”

Miller said during the 2016 presidential election his campus made a big push to reach seniors turning 18 by Election Day. Even though this year’s November election is local, he said they are embarking on a similar push. Students can pick registration cards at the campus Go Center, a resource that typically helps students research colleges.

He said there are about 131 seniors who will turn 18 by Nov. 7.

Miller said students are encouraged to find out how local elections work and how they impact their lives.

“It’s nonpartisan. It’s non-issue. It’s just, ‘Hey, guys, this is your voice,’ ” Miller said.

‘It sends a message’

In North Texas, the voter registration campaign could result in young voters helping decide school-bond elections in three districts: Aledo, Eagle Mountain-Saginaw and Fort Worth. There are also seven proposed amendments to the Texas Constitution.

“Our democracy depends on the active participation of young Texans in the electoral process,” Pablos wrote in a recent column that has been published by Texas newspapers. “It is essential that we empower younger generations to make their voices heard through voting. To do this, we must first take an active role in ensuring that those who are eligible can and will register to vote.”

Under Texas law, high school principals are able to serve as deputy voter registrars and hand out voter registration applications to students who will be 18 by Election Day. On several campuses, school librarians are also serving as registrars. Only registrars can collect applications.

About 150 superintendents signed a pledge, promising high school principals will help register more first-time voters.

Fort Worth Superintendent Kent Scribner agreed to help. Aledo Superintendent Derek Citty also signed the pledge. Also signing were superintendents in Burleson, Eagle Mountain-Saginaw, Everman, Grapevine-Colleyville, Granbury and Weatherford.

“By signing the pledge, we believe it sends a message not only to our community, but also to our students about how important their role is in the election process,” Citty said. “There is no substitute for solid research prior to entering the voting booth.”

In Fort Worth schools, voters will review two bond propositions. A proposed $749.7 million bond program will pay for upgrades to the district’s 14 high schools, a new elementary school in the Tanglewood school zone and the relocation of three specialty schools. Voters in the Fort Worth school district also cast ballots in a tax ratification election, which would let the district restructure its tax rate and move 2 cents from one tax pool to another, which district officials say will generate more than $23 million annually.

In Aledo, voters also have two propositions. One proposition uses $64.2 million for a new 900-student middle school and renovation of an existing building to create an elementary school. The second proposition allocates about $8.7 million to help pay for upgrades for learning spaces for agricultural, career and technology classes.

In Eagle Mountain-Saginaw schools, voters will decide on a $524.7 million bond program to build a fourth high school, purchase land for future schools and pay for a new natatorium in partnership with the YMCA.

This report contains material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Diane A. Smith: 817-390-7675, @dianeasmith1

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram