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Most 18-year-old Texans aren’t signed up to vote despite a law requiring voter registration in high schools

Voting is habit-forming and high schools are critical for starting that pattern.
Posted: 7:09 AM, Apr 10, 2024
Updated: 2024-04-10 08:09:44-04
DeBakey Civics Club Vice President Mihir Relan, 18, left, and President Bianca Juarez, 18, register to vote following a voter education workshop on April 5, 2024. A 1980s law requires Texas high schools to distribute voter registration forms to eligible students, but not all are complying.

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(Texas Tribune) — When David Dzul approached his principal about setting up a voter registration drive on campus in 2019, he quickly realized why voting participation rates are so abysmal among his peers.

Texas high schools have long been required to distribute voter registration forms to older teens twice a year. But Dzul said that wasn’t happening at Houston’s DeBakey High School, and he initially couldn’t nail down who the school’s designated voter registrar was — or if the school was even complying with the decades-old state law at all.

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Dzul was trying to galvanize civic engagement after hearing about low participation rates among young voters at a meeting of Mi Familia Vota, a group that encourages Latinos to cast ballots. He eventually organized a group of peers to track classmates when they turned 18 years old, help them register and follow up with a link to confirm they could cast a ballot in the next election.

“I don’t think the administration supported the initiative so much as they tolerated it,” Dzul said. “They weren’t actively setting up tables and telling students to register, but they allowed us to occupy space and get volunteer deputy voter registrars into the schools.”

Texas is home to about 409,000 18-year-old U.S. citizens, according to 2022 U.S. Census Bureau data. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 39.6% of Texans ages 18 to 24 were registered to vote in November 2022. And that was the biggest decline in voter registration for any age group compared to the previous midterm election in 2018.

And even once younger adults are registered, they cast ballots at lower rates than other age groups. During the 2022 midterms, only 49% of registered Texas voters between 18 and 24 participated. That compares to 86% of voters 65 and older.

Research has found that voting is habit-forming, and high schools are a critical training ground to initiating that pattern. The 2023 Harvard Youth Poll found that two-thirds of 18-to-29-year-olds who definitely plan to vote said their high school education made voting feel important. But only 47% of less committed voters in that age group feel that way about their high school education.

“Starting that habit early is a predictor of lifelong voting,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “We want the students to start this process early and then bring that forward through their civic lives.”

The 1983 law requiring high schools to distribute voter registration forms to students who are 17 years and 10 months old or older was intended to boost turnout among young voters. But the secretary of state’s office, which was charged with creating the instructions to implement the law, doesn’t track compliance. And schools that fail to distribute registration forms to eligible students aren’t penalized.

The University of Houston’s Election Lab estimated in 2021 that only a quarter of schools were complying with the law, though that number is not conclusive. Some high school seniors told the Tribune they had never been given a voter registration form at school, and nonprofit leaders said they have spoken to school administrators who are unaware of the law.

On the left, Tania Cora, Education Coordinator of Harris County Clerk’s Office Elections, provides guidance on how to use a voting machine at DeBakey High School Civics Club’s voter education conference in Houston, on Friday, April 5, 2024.
Tania Cora, left, education coordinator at the Harris County Elections Department, provides guidance on how to use a voting machine at DeBakey Civics Club’s voter education conference in Houston. Only 49% of registered Texas voters ages 18 to 24 year old participated in the 2022 midterm election. Credit: Joseph Bui for The Texas Tribune

And many critics of Texas voting laws — including new limits passed in 2021 — say getting registered outside of school isn’t very friendly to teenagers. While other states have online voter registration, Texans must complete a paper application, creating a possible barrier to young people who do everything — from shopping to banking — digitally.

State lawmakers in 2021 also restricted how educators can teach current events and history. The law, designed to keep “critical race theory” out of Texas public schools, also prohibits teachers from discussing “a widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs.” Without defining “controversial,” the law created widespread confusionabout what topics teachers could and could not legally cover.

“It’s not enough to just tell people, ‘voting is important,’” said Maggie Stern, who promotes youth civic engagement through the nonprofit organization Children’s Defense Fund Texas.

“Young people are motivated by the issues affecting their community, so as they understand the ways elected officials have power over those issues, they are more motivated to vote — that piece of civics education is really lacking in Texas.”

Efforts to change Texas’ legal landscape

Kevin Brown can still vividly remember learning how to vote in his government class as a high school student in San Marcos in the mid 80s. A nonprofit brought a voting booth into his classroom and taught students how to punch in their selections. Students ran a mock election, and the tally was shared the following day in the morning announcements.

Brown, who now serves as the executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators, said administrators took civics education seriously when he later became a public school teacher. They wanted to develop citizens who would be engaged with the world and the issues around them.

Now, he has trouble imagining a school running a mock presidential election without raising concerns that doing so might create controversy. Senate Bill 3, the same 2021 law that limits lessons about racism in American history, also prohibits teachers from giving students class credit for any public policy advocacy.

“That produced a really big chilling effect on anything related to civics education,” Stern said. “It has really deterred a lot of schools who used to be doing this work from having any sort of conversation with students around voting and civic participation.”

TaKasha Francis, Judge-elect of the 152nd civil district court, speaks to students at DeBakey High School Civics Club’s voter education conference about the importance of having a voice and vote during elections in Houston, on Friday, April 5, 2024.
TaKasha Francis, who won the Democratic nomination for judge of a state district court, speaks to DeBakey Civics Club students on the importance of voting. Credit: Joseph Bui for The Texas Tribune

SB 3 requires the Texas Education Agency to create a civics training program that will outline the knowledge and skills students are expected to have. The program is supposed to be implemented no later than the 2025-2026 school year. A TEA spokesperson said the agency is in the “planning phase” for developing the program.

Although public school students in Texas are required to take a government class to graduate, many students say they do not learn about civic engagement or voter registration in the course. That’s despite the fact that the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills states that students who complete the class should be able to “describe the voter registration process and the criteria for voting in elections.”

“It’s a daunting task to learn what is a primary, what is a general election and who are all the candidates running,” said Ashton Sanchez, a senior at Sam Houston Math, Science and Technology Center High School in Houston. “We need to find a way to integrate that into the classroom.”

Voting rights advocates argue that the state should do more to ensure students are registered to vote, for example, by documenting compliance with the high school voter registration law.

Katya Ehresman, voting rights program manager at Common Cause Texas, noted that some states reward schools that register students. Tennessee acknowledges schools that reach a certain voter registration threshold, and Pennsylvania has a governor’s civic engagement award to celebrate schools that register 85% of eligible students to vote, for example.

Common Cause also recommends that the secretary of state’s office mail each school voter registration applications, instead of requiring schools to request them twice a year. Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, introduced a bill in 2021 that would require the secretary of state to mail the applications directly to all high schools, but the bill never got a hearing before the House Elections Committee.

Alicia Pierce, spokesperson for the secretary of state, said mailing applications is expensive and that it might not address noncompliance.

“I’m not sure you would get much better results,” Pierce said. “If it just shows up at their door and they weren’t already planning to use them, then you just have these registration forms sitting there.”

Student action

Some students have taken matters into their own hands. Rice University has partnered with the League of Women Voters to create an internship program where students, most of whom are in the Houston Independent School District, organize voter registration drives at their high schools. The goal, according to Rice University professor Melissa Marschall, who leads the program, is to get students to take ownership of the activity and encourage their friends to register.

“I’ve never heard of a school where the principal takes charge of the event, because technically, most of them are not trained as deputy voter registrars,” Marschall said. “We prioritize events with peer to peer civic education.”

About 130 students applied to the internship and 10 are participating, Marschall said. She said she hopes the program makes it easier for organizations like the League of Women Voters to enter schools. The organization has historically relied on relationships with administrators, who are not always amenable to welcoming outside organizations. Administrator turnover, which has increased this year due to the state’s takeover of HISD, creates additional hurdles.

Mihir Relan, 18, Vice President of DeBakey Civic’s Club, registers to vote with the help of Jolt Initiative, a non-profit organization that increases the civic participation of Latinos in Texas, on Friday, April 5, 2024.
DeBakey Civics Club Vice President Mihir Relan fills out a voter registration form. Some Texas high school students have organized voter registration drives to increase the participation of younger voters. Credit: Joseph Bui for The Texas Tribune

At Round Rock High School, a student chapter of Junior State of America has taken the lead on organizing a voter registration drive. Junior Indira Moparthi recalled an uphill battle to create a drive during her freshman year. She said administrators rejected the idea because they thought the event would be partisan.

“Seniors and parents got involved, and a petition went around saying we weren’t supporting a particular political party,” Moparthi said. “Finally the administration signed off.”

For some students, school is the only place where they can gain critical information about voting. Among immigrant families who have historically been marginalized for voting, civics participation is rarely talked about in the household.

For Dzul, whose parents did not grow up voting in the U.S., it was frustrating to see 18-year-olds who could vote fail to take advantage of their right. That motivated him to create a civics club, which has continued to hold registration drives since he graduated.

“We need to get more power to marginalized communities, and voter registration is the first step to getting people that power,” Dzul said.

Disclosure: Common Cause, Integrate, Rice University, Texas Association of School Administrators and University of Houston 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.

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