Texas needs to walk the walk

The Texas Secretary of State says he wants to improve voter registration rates among young adults by promoting voter registration in high schools. That’s going to be hard because Texas is pretty far behind when it comes to adopting rules that encourage youth voting.

Texas doesn’t allow young people to register or pre-register to vote until they are 17 years and 10 months. That’s the most restrictive age limit on voter registration of any state in the country.

Texas law also has an onerous training requirement that has the effect of discouraging schools, students, and community organizations from holding voter registration drives in high schools.  Only certified “Volunteer Deputy Registrars” and a limited number of other officials are allowed to collect completed voter registration applications and return them to the Secretary of State.

And it’s not all that easy to become a Volunteer Deputy Registrar. You must be at least 18 years old and complete a mandatory training program. (See the Texas Secretary of State’s Volunteer Deputy Registrar Guide for additional requirements.) While a minority of other states require some level of training for volunteer voter registrars, the two most populous Texas counties require aspiring Volunteer Deputy Registrars to either attend a training session in person or take an examination in person at the county registrar’s office during business hours. Such limited hours are likely to discourage high school teachers, administrators, and students--who are in school all day--from becoming Volunteer Deputy Registrars.

Even more cumbersome is a Texas law that requires Volunteer Deputy Registrars to renew their certification every two years (unless they are a high school principal or the principal’s sole designee). All of the existing certifications will expire at the end of 2018.

Texas also has a voter ID rule and does not allow students to use a school ID to meet the requirements. With all these legal hoops for potential voters to jump through, it’s no wonder Texas’s registration rate among 18-24-year-olds is so low. The Secretary of State has his work cut out for him to turn his enthusiasm for high school voter registration into a reality.

On the bright side, Texas law requires high school principals to distribute voter registration applications to eligible students twice each school year.  Many schools are not yet complying, but a growing effort is underway to help inform schools about the requirement and to encourage them to take advantage of the legal framework that is already in place.

It’s not enough for Texas or its Secretary of State to talk the talk. The Secretary of State could do some real good by advocating legal changes that allowed young people to preregister when they turn 16, like many other States. Or the Secretary of State could advocate for dropping the onerous requirements for Volunteer Deputy Registrars. Or the Secretary of State could urge lawmakers to allow students to use school IDs as proof of identification. Or the Secretary of State could push for online voter registration training, like Colorado. This would make the Volunteer Deputy Registrar program more accessible and therefore encourage more citizens to register young adults to vote.

In the meantime, those who care about helping young people participate in democracy can put signing up for Volunteer Deputy Registrar training at the top of their to-do list. Here are the links for training information from Bexar County, Dallas County, Harris County, Tarrant County, and Travis County. Trained volunteers can support student-led, high school voter registration drives in the spring semester -- a time when the greatest number of Texas students will meet the age requirement and will be thinking about graduation and the future.  

People in the community who care about empowering youth voices will make all the difference. That’s just what the Secretary of State said he wanted.