11 Apr Ensuring that eligible high school voters can participate in our democracy

By Beth Stevens

 

The following testimony was given by TCRP’s Voting Rights Program Director, Beth Stevens, to the Texas House Public Education Committee. The testimony is regarding proposed legislation to strengthen our state’s current high school voter registration law and ensure that young Texas voters have a chance to participate in our democracy.

“To Representative Dan Huberty, Committee Chairman, and the Committee Members,

I direct the Voting Rights Program at the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP), a legal advocacy organization that seeks to empower communities and create policy change. In my position, I work closely with Mimi Marziani, TCRP’s Executive Director and election law professor at The University of Texas School of Law, to advance voting rights in Texas.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify before you regarding the proposed legislation. In particular, I thank Representative Terry Canales’ office for inviting me to share our expertise with you. I would like to offer a few remarks emphasizing the importance of the current high school voter registration law, describing the work that TCRP and its partners have done to ensure compliance with the law, and offering our support for House Bill 209.

As follows, that measure is a step in the right direction toward ensuring that young voters can participate in our democracy. We hope that the Committee will vote to advance this legislation.

Texas’ High School Voter Registration Law is Critically Important.

The right to vote is fundamental. Registering to vote should be an easy, straightforward, and open process for everyone, but especially for young people who are beginning their first experience with voting. Numerous studies have shown that when young people learn the voting process early on, they are more likely to continue their democratic participation later in life. It also increases the likelihood that others in their households will vote, especially among communities of color and immigrant families. For these reasons, current Texas law requires high school principals to provide voter registration opportunities to high school students who are 18 years old or will be on Election Day, twice every school year.

This decades-old law is unique: Texas is one of just two states that seek to boost registration among young people in this way. Our state should be proud of this effort to welcome new voters into the electorate, which is why TCRP applauded the Secretary of State’s office last year when it made outreach to first-time voters “a priority.”[1]

Compliance with the Current High School Registration Law is Not Acceptable.

TCRP has prioritized voter registration, and is working to remove systemic barriers to registration, such as noncompliance with federal and state election laws. For over three years, TCRP has been investigating the state’s high school voter registration law, producing reports outlining widespread non-compliance and ignorance of the statute.[2] In 2016, TCRP partnered with the Texas Organizing Project (TOP) and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under Law (Lawyers’ Committee) on a multi-prong strategy to raise awareness about, and force compliance with, Texas’ high school voter registration law.

After several meetings with TCRP and its partners in the summer of 2016, the Texas Secretary of State agreed to send a letter to Texas high schools at the start of the 2016-2017 school year, reminding administrators of their duties under the Texas Election Code.[3] TCRP also published the first-ever guide[4] to help schools and community advocates navigate the high school voter registration law. TOP and other grassroots organizing groups relied upon the guide to educate community members about the law and its importance.

TCRP paired its legal advocacy with communications strategies to raise awareness. For instance, soon after the school year began, we conducted an initial investigation into compliance, confirming that less than 4% of Texas’ 3,709 schools had requested registration forms as of September 13, 2016. Publicizing this research resulted in a push by grassroots groups and individual citizens to get their local high schools into compliance.[5]

Current analysis of voter registration form requests from Texas schools through 2016 will be published in the coming weeks. At this point, however, we can conservatively estimate that under 15% of public high schools in the state requested forms in 2016 — which is, obviously, unacceptable.

The Proposed Legislation Provides an Important First Step Toward Ensuring Compliance.

As we understand it, House Bill 209 would:

  • require high schools to have voter registration forms to provide to students at all times;
  • create an affirmative duty for the Secretary of State to send, to each high school, a sufficient number of registration forms based upon his consultation with the Texas Education Agency and without requiring high schools to submit requests for forms; and
  • allow high school deputy registrars to use the standard mail-in voter registration form to register students, rather than a form that is specific to high school registration.

These new requirements are important steps in the right direction — enforcing current law and making it easier for high schoolers to register to vote. Particularly, providing the Secretary of State with an affirmative duty to send voter registration forms to high schools, rather than requiring individual high schools and school districts to request forms, will go a long way toward reminding high schools of their duty under law, while easing the burden that requesting forms places upon high schools.”

 

Beth Stevens is the Voting Program Director with the Texas Civil Rights Project.

To download the full testimony, click here

 


TCRP appreciates this committee’s commitment to providing all eligible Texas students with the opportunity to register to vote and looks forward to passage of this legislation. If you have questions or desire further information, do not hesitate to contact me. Thank you again for your interest in ensuring eligible Texas voters have every opportunity to register to vote and for inviting me to testify.

[1] See Press Release, Qualified high school students can register to vote with principal, Office of the Texas Secretary of State (Sept. 13, 2016), http://www.sos.state.tx.us/about/newsreleases/2016/091316.shtml.

[2] For more information, visit https://www.texascivilrightsproject.org/en/issues/voting-rights/enforcing-high-school-voter-registration-laws/.

[3] See Attachments A, B, and C.

[4] Texas High School Voter Registration: A How to Guide, Texas Civil Rights Project (2016), https://www.texascivilrightsproject.org/en/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/HSVR-Guide-CLEAN.pdf.

[5] See, e.g., Jim Malewitz, Schools May be Flouting Law on Registering Students to Vote, texas tribune, Sept. 28, 2016, https://www.texastribune.org/2016/09/28/texas-law-requires-high-schools-register-students-/.