About two-thirds of Texas high schools are not following a state law that mandates giving all eligible students the opportunity to register to vote, according to a new report. That means hundreds of thousands of potential voters have been left off the rolls.
For three decades, public and private high school principals in Texas have been required to distribute voter registration applications to all students who will be 18 years old that school year. The law stipulates that students be offered the applications at least twice per year. But without an enforcement mechanism or sufficient outreach by the state, compliance has been “abysmal,” according to the Texas Civil Rights Project’s report.
Since the 2016 presidential election, only a third of public high schools with more than 20 seniors requested a single voter registration form from the secretary of state’s office, the report’s authors found. In other words, two-thirds of public high schools in Texas didn’t even take the first step in complying with the law, leaving out at least 183,000 students in the last two years alone.
A map included in the report shows that the problem is scattered across the state, from major metros to rural areas. Most students in the Rio Grande Valley, a majority-minority region, aren’t getting voter registration forms at school; neither are those in large swaths of the Panhandle and West Texas.
Beyond school principals, blame also lies with Texas Secretary of State Rolando Pablos, said James Slattery, one of the report’s authors. The law does not include a strict enforcement mechanism and leaves implementation largely up to the secretary of state’s office.
“Instead of working with civic engagement groups, parents and students, the secretary’s office has dragged its feet in implementing common-sense reforms to help high schools comply with the law,” said Slattery, a Texas Civil Rights Project attorney.
In 2015, the civil rights group surveyed 290 Texas high schools and found that only 14 percent had received any guidance from the secretary of state regarding voter registration. “It is only last year that the secretary of state’s office finally sent an email to all of the principals of the state telling them about the law,” said Zenén Jaimes Pérez, communications director for the Texas Civil Rights Project.
“Since we began our efforts last year, compliance has more than doubled among Texas high school principals,” the statement reads. “We have taken a number of steps to remove barriers for principals, encourage community involvement, and implement accountability measures to the maximum extent allowed under the current law.”
The Legislature has refused to give the law teeth. In 2017, state Representative Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, filed House Bill 209, which would have required high schools to make voter registration forms readily available year-round. Despite passing unanimously in the Texas House Committee on Public Education, the bill failed to reach the full chamber for a vote.
“This was the very first bill I filed last session because I believe voter registration and youth political engagement is of paramount importance to the future of this state,” Canales wrote in a statement. “Texas ranks 47th in voter turnout in this country and we need to change this.”
The authors of the report also call on the secretary of state’s office to automatically send the forms to schools, rather than requiring administrators to request them; offer online trainings for voter registrars; and create a publicly available database showing which schools are registering students.
But with a ruling party that has an affinity for keeping “a demographically favorable electorate encased in political amber,” a solution to this problem may have to come from elsewhere.
“I believe that Texas Republicans are afraid that if more Texans register to vote, those voters will be Democratic voters,” Canales said. “I have worked on increasing high school voter registration for many years, and I have never been given a legitimate reason that our state should not be registering every high school student as they are required to by law.”