Texas Politics

Texas high schools are supposed to register 18-year-olds to vote. A majority aren’t

From Guyer High School’s lunch room to government class and even the front office, voter registration forms were never far away for students to fill out when they turned 18. But the high school in Denton is in the minority when it comes to Texas schools’ compliance with a state law, a report by the Texas Civil Rights Project found.

Monday’s report from the Texas Civil Rights Project found that from February to October 2018, only 38% of Texas public high schools with at least 20 seniors held voter registration activities.

“That’s appalling. That’s actually horrible,” said Caleb Brock, a recent Guyer High School graduate who has held voter registration drives.

A 1985 state law requires school districts to provide eligible students opportunities to register to vote at least twice a year, but schools have long failed to comply with it, and the Secretary of State’s office doesn’t strongly enforce it. There are also no enforcement mechanisms, like fines, written into the law.

“Government is more responsive and accountable when every community in this state participates,” said James Slattery, the report’s author and a senior staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project. “Young people, as new participants in democracy, there’s always a risk that their voices won’t be heard as much as others.”

Through consulting with grassroots organizations that partnered with schools to hold registration drives and a records request to the Secretary of State’s office, the Texas Civil Rights Project attempted to verify which schools complied with the law.

This year’s figure is an increase of 4% from last year’s report, and a jump of 24% from the 2017 report in which just 14% of public schools with at least 20 seniors had requested voter registration forms from the Secretary of State.

During the 2016 election, none of the state’s five largest counties — including Tarrant County — had more than 12% of their high schools requesting voter registration forms, according to the report.

But that’s changed, and the surge can be seen in Tarrant County, where the percentage of schools providing voter registration opportunities for students has increased from 9% in 2016, to 28% in 2017 and reached 54% in 2018. Travis County saw the highest rate of compliance, with 68% of high schools participating, according to the report.

In Tarrant County, some schools such as Richland High in North Richland Hills and Carroll Senior High School in Southlake were coded red because there was no information available documenting if voter registration cards had been requested from the state.

A request for comment from Birdville schools was not returned.

At Carroll Senior High School, voter registration is offered to students through government classes. There is a teacher assigned to this effort and a student group typically assists during lunch periods, according to the school district.

“The district does expect the principal to follow the law and offer voter registration information and opportunities to students,” said Julie Thannum, spokeswoman for the Carroll school district.

Several high schools actively worked to register 18-year-old students in recent years. At Fort Worth’s Paschal High School, librarians serve as deputy voter registrars and work to register seniors three times a year. Last fall, they registered more than 100 students before the November mid-term elections.

Also last fall, voter registration efforts at Fort Worth’s Diamond Hill-Jarvis High School included walking together to a nearby early voting site to cast their first-ever ballots.

Athena Chavez is part of the a group called the May 4th Coalition. That group, which formed around the recent city and local elections, is trying to help more high schools provide voter registration information.

“We think it is extremely important,” Chavez said. “We have an organization that will be supporting high schools in their efforts to register people.”

A push from the state

Slattery said the increase in school compliance from 2016 to 2017 can be attributed, in part, to more involvement from the Secretary of State, the leading election official in Texas.

Former Secretary of State Rolando Pablos published editorials to raise awareness about the lack of involvement and called on school superintendents to pledge 100% participation from their districts. Meanwhile, former Secretary of State David Whitley who was appointed in December 2018 to succeed Pablos, visited high schools to raise awareness, but did not put forward similar initiatives, Slattery said.

“We think it’s reasonable to assume that there’s a cause and effect there,” Slattery said. “What is missing from making this law more reality than vision, is direct involvement by the Secretary of State.”

With Whitley’s resignation in May, it remains to be seen if the next Secretary of State will make high school voter registration a priority ahead of the upcoming 2020 presidential election.

“2020 is an interesting period of time, for many reasons. But one is that it’s actually the first presidential election in which people who were born in the 21st century will be voting for president, and the next Secretary could really make this a priority,” Slattery said. “We know from social science research that when young people vote in the first few elections in which they’re eligible, they are much more likely to become lifelong voters in the habit of voting.”

Students getting involved

Some students have taken the matter into their own hands amid a lack of action at the state level.

Brock, the 18-year-old who recently graduated from Guyer High School, may be best known for duping Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick into posing with a painting that had phrases like “Abolish ICE” and “Impeach Trump.” But the teen’s political participation has manifested in quieter ways too, like working to register his peers to vote.

“We’re seeing young people realize that if we actually ever want to have beneficial, widespread systematic change that benefits young people, then we have to actually go out and vote because politicians only really listen to who votes,” Brock said.

Despite schools’ attempts to order voter registration forms and be added to emails notifying districts about the process, confusion still exists around the law’s implementation, the report found.

Under the 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. Only registrars can collect applications, and there is no online voter registration in Texas.

When an assistant principal at a Fort Worth high school emailed the Secretary of State’s office to order forms and be added to an email list for outreach, they were told that while the Secretary of State’s office would mail the forms, the assistant principal would have to contact the Texas Education Association to be included on the email list.

“The Texas Education Association maintains the email list. You will need to contact them to be added. We get the list from them,” a representative from the Secretary of State’s office wrote back.

Brock said those “unnecessary bureaucratic” procedures hinder schools’ ability to comply with the law. And it’s already hard to get other teens to take the step of registering to vote, Brock said, even though he sees more people his age excited about elections.

Brock, whose interest in politics was first piqued when he saw the Occupy Wall Street movement play out on Reddit, started to become more politically active after the 2016 election. From there, he started a club that focused on nonpartisan discussion of current events. And he eventually went on to create a group, Students for Increased Voter Participation, that held a voter registration event.

Voting is a right Brock hopes to exercise in the next election. He turned 18 just ten days after local elections took place this past May. But the day his birthday arrived, he registered to vote and took the next step of becoming a voter registrar so he could register others.

Ultimately, the responsibility to ensure high school students are being given opportunities to register to vote should fall on the agency tasked with enforcing the law, advocates said.

“I don’t think anyone wants to punish schools or teachers,” Slattery said. “Election law in Texas is very complicated. Educators are not trained election law experts. And so they need that support from the Secretary. And at the end of the day, it’s the Secretary’s responsibility to ensure that this law is being complied with.”

While Brock said the responsibility shouldn’t fall onto students to ensure steps are being taken, he had some words of advice for other teens who want to start voter registration drives at their schools: “Know your power.”

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Diane Smith, a graduate from the University of Texas at Austin, has been a reporter for the Star-Telegram since 1997. Smith, who has covered municipal government, immigration and education, has won multiple awards for reporting, most recently as part of a Star-Telegram team recognized by the Headliners Foundation of Texas for coverage of child abuse and Fort Worth’s Las Vegas Trail area.
Tessa Weinberg is a state government for the Star-Telegram. Based in Austin, she covers all things policy and politics with a focus on Tarrant County. She previously covered the Missouri legislature where her reporting prompted an investigation by the Attorney General’s office. A California native and graduate of the University of Missouri, she’s made her way across the U.S. and landed in Texas in May 2019.