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Texas Schools May Be Flouting Law on Registering Students to Vote

Voters wait in line at the University of Texas Co-op to cast their ballots in the March 1, 2016 primary elections. (Photo courtesy of Shelby Tauber via The Texas Tribune)

by Jim Malewitz | The Texas Tribune

Hundreds of Texas high schools are likely flouting state requirements that they register eligible students to vote, new data suggests.

Fewer than 4 percent of the state’s 3,709 high schools had asked the secretary of state for voter registration applications as of Sept. 13, according to agency data compiled by the Texas Civil Rights Project.

That's despite a long-standing Texas law — geared at bolstering civic participation among youngsters — that requires principals or other designated registrars to distribute registration forms and notices to eligible high school students at least twice each year.

“We have been working closely with the Secretary of State and other organizations to make sure that high schools across Texas meet their legal obligation to register high school students to vote,” Mimi Marziani, executive director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, said in a statement. “But the low rate of requests for voter registration forms shows that deep problems still remain.”

Archie McAfee, executive director of the Texas Association of Secondary School Principals, responded to a request for comment with an email saying he was out of the office.

Students may register to vote at age 17 years and 10 months. Those who have turned 18 years of age by Election Day may vote.

The high schools can still comply with the state law if they register students using forms that they get elsewhere (like from the counties), but the letter of the law requires them to be the registrars.

High school registrars who don't follow certain requirements (for instance, if they fail to hand the state filled-out forms) can be found guilty of a misdemeanor, but no mechanism penalizes those who don't circulate the forms in the first place.

“There are no teeth,” said Alicia Pierce, a spokeswoman for Texas Secretary of State Carlos Cascos.

His office has sent letters to principals reminding them of their legal requirements, including one on Aug. 30 and another this week. Cascos also raised the issue this year while speaking at a conference of the Texas Association of Secondary Principals.

Pearce said it’s likely that at least a few schools are following the law — or at least its spirit — even if they aren’t using the forms that her office issues. Some might be working with counties or other groups to register students.

“A lot of times, principals are pursuing alternative methods, and at the end of the day, we just want to make sure that everyone has that opportunity to get registered," she said.

Nevertheless, voting rights advocates say school administrators have long been unaware of their voter registration duties.

When the Texas Civil Rights Project surveyed principals in 2013, just 37 percent of those who responded said their schools distributed voter registration applications at least twice a year, while 23 percent said they never gave them to students.

“There’s a wider question about civil participation of young people in Texas,” said Zenén Jaimes Pérez, a spokesman for the group. “If we’re not building this from the very beginning, it’s going to be a lot more difficult later on.”

Texas has long been near the bottom of the list when it comes to participating in elections.

Just 21 percent of voting-age Texans, for instance, voted in this year’s primary elections — a lower rate than all but four states (Unlike Texas, each of those states have closed primary systems, and three held no down-ballot races.)

And Texas ranked 48th among states — counting the District of Columbia — during the 2012 general election.

Read more related coverage:

  • Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has asked the justices to hear his arguments about why the state’s photo ID requirements for voting do not discriminate against Hispanics and African-American voters.
  • Texas must issue new press releases and other materials in its voter education campaign. That comes after the federal government and other plaintiffs accused state officials of misleading voters about identification requirements.

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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