Other Voices

Student voter initiative in El Paso encourages turnout

Voters go to the polls at Fire Station 22 in West El Paso on Super Tuesday, March 1.
Voters go to the polls at Fire Station 22 in West El Paso on Super Tuesday, March 1. AP

President Obama didn’t mince words when calling out Texas leaders’ abysmal record for supporting Texans’ right to vote.

The folks who are governing the good state of Texas aren’t interested in having more people participate,” Obama said March 11 during an appearance at Austin’s SXSW Festival.

He’s exactly right.

Time and again, our state’s leaders have refused even modest steps to improve voter participation.

In the last legislative session, bills filed by myself and others to extend early voting, simplify voting by mail, automatically register voters when they get a driver’s license, and allow registration during early voting and on election day were all denied committee hearings.

Our leaders also refused to authorize online voter registration, which 34 states allow.

Gov. Greg Abbott said he has no interest in making it easier for people to vote, trotting out a thoroughly debunked claim that Texas has a voter fraud problem. It doesn’t.

Texas has a voter participation problem, which our leaders have exacerbated.

First, they pushed through voter ID laws that federal courts found discriminate against minorities.

Now Texas is fighting a lawsuit alleging it misled thousands of prospective voters into believing they were registered when they were not.

It’s no surprise Texas ranks near last for voter participation. Statewide, only 21 percent voted in the March primaries. The November 2015 election drew only 6.5 percent.

A group of young El Pasoans is trying to turn this around.

My office’s Youth Advisory Committee, which is composed of high school and college students, created the Student Voter Initiative last year to increase high school student participation.

Texas law requires high schools to make voter registration applications available to students, but we found many schools weren’t aware of the law.

This past fall, the committee began presenting a nonpartisan lesson plan to encourage area students to be civically engaged.

During the lesson, students discuss an everyday problem and then vote on solutions to that problem.

After voting, however, the committee counts only a small percentage of votes. This demonstrates how few voters actually turn out. When just a few votes are counted, students aren’t usually happy with the result.

The Student Voter Initiative is already increasing student turnout.

Consider the Ysleta school district, where the committee presented before the November election. In that election, about 12 percent of the roughly 500 SVI-registered students voted — almost twice El Paso County’s overall turnout rate for that election.

The committee has presented in five school districts and registered nearly 2,000 students — about 30 percent of all 18-year-olds who were registered by March 1.

Overall student turnout in the March primaries was mixed, but encouraging.

Roughly 15 percent of registered 18-year-olds voted. Of these, about 13 percent were students who were registered through the Student Voter Initiative.

These numbers aren’t perfect, but they suggest that young people can break the cycle of voter apathy when they’re engaged.

In fact, some of these students are coming up with their own projects to engage with their peers and community.

Register to vote, and encourage others to do so! Download a voter registration application through VoteTexas.gov.

State Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, represents Senate District 29 in the Texas Legislature.