People line up outside of the University Co-op in Austin to vote last November. State law requires high schools to hand out voter registration applications to eligible students twice a school year. Photo by GABRIEL CRISTÓVER PÉREZ / KUT
Texas hasn’t been enforcing compliance with a 30-year-old law requiring public and private high schools to hand out voter registration applications to eligible students at least twice a school year, civil rights groups say.
It’s basically up to high schools to make the law work. But only 6 percent of schools in Texas are asking the state for registration forms, says Beth Stevens, voting rights director with the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP). Advocates say state officials need to do more.
“Right now, the [secretary of state] requires already-busy high school administrators to send a form requesting the voter registration forms,” she told reporters Wednesday. “That’s right: Send a form to request forms.”
Stevens said the setup is “ridiculous” and could be simplified. She said there’s another problem, too: The state doesn’t really know how many schools are complying.
“The problem with answering that question is the secretary of state’s office hasn’t tracked that information,” she said. “And that’s one of the things that we are arguing – that [Secretary of State Rolando Pablos] should implement a tracking process so that we can, going forward, know which schools are in compliance and which schools aren’t.”
Stevens said the only reason TCRP knows so few schools are asking for voter registration applications is because for the past four years it has been asking school administrators themselves.
The group found that only 198 out of 1,428 public schools requested forms in 2016. None of about 1,800 private schools requested them.
Advocates say the state is missing an opportunity to turn young Texans into active voters.
“The one thing we do know already is that when voter registration is coupled with messages about the personal importance of voting and the how, when and where information is given, that students are more likely to vote,” said Cinde Weatherby, board president of the League of Women Voters of Austin.
From a national perspective, this is something the state should take seriously, said Brendan Downes with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
“Texas ranks near the bottom in youth voter registration and turnout. This is a great remedy for that problem,” he said.
That is something advocates say is frustrating – mostly because Texas has a detailed law that gives high schools a lot of information on how to run these drives. Stevens says that’s unique.
“And one that would be very powerful if we could get the secretary to enforce compliance,” she said.
Advocates say they are “encouraged” because Pablos has said this is an issue that is important to him. In an op-ed last month in the Star-Telegram he wrote, “Texas students deserve better, and I want to work with principals to improve upon the past.”
“For this reason, my office will commit to providing all principals an effective and efficient digital mechanism for requesting voter registration applications. We will strive to make it as easy as possible to request and receive the materials needed to register their eligible students.”
Civil rights groups, who have sued the state over voting rights issues in the past, say litigation is not out of the question as they try to get the state to comply with its own law.