Commentary: How UT got students hooked on voting


Texas Longhorn competitiveness and ingenuity are regularly displayed in the athletic and academic arenas. As a University of Texas at Austin institute director, teacher and a faculty adviser to the student organization TX Votes, I have watched healthy competition and hard work take place in another arena — student voting.

Leading up to Election Day last fall, I observed ongoing and creative student-led efforts to increase student voting on campus. This sustained effort of so many students paid off and recently earned UT Austin a national title in the arena of civics and democracy. The university received a Champion Award from the All In Campus Democracy Challenge for having the most improved undergraduate student voting rate — an increase of 14 percentage points from 39 percent in 2012 to 53 percent in 2016.

STUDY: Most Texas high schools aren’t registering students to vote.

UT Austin was also awarded two Best in Class awards for having the most-improved voting rate among all four-year, public institutions and the most-improved voting rate within the four-year, large, public institution category. The campuswide improvement was a 15 percentage-point increase from 42 percent in 2012 to 57 percent in 2016.

The effort and activities that led to this outcome deserve our respect and provides a model that other Texas colleges and universities can follow.

In the fall of 2015, students in UT Votes set out to create a network of organizations named the Civic Engagement Alliance. Participation was voluntary and available to every student organization and student-oriented department on campus. By participating in the alliance, student organizations or divisions made a nonpartisan commitment to promote and enable voter registration.

Throughout 2016, these organizations — which included politically oriented student groups such as TX Votes, Undergraduate and Graduate Hook the Vote Agencies, Texas Rising, UDems and UT LULAC, as well as nonpolitical groups such as the UT Division of Housing and Food Service, Longhorn Singers, the Communication Council and the Women in Business Association — spread out across campus. Together these groups registered more than 17,000 students to vote, trained nearly 200 students as volunteer deputy registrars and hosted a number of registration drives and election-related events.

SECRETARY OF STATE: How Texas high school principals can cultivate teen voters.

Engaged faculty members, administrators, and state and local elected officials were also key to the students’ success. Travis County Tax Assessor-Collector and Voter Registrar Bruce Elfant and his staff in the Travis County Voter Registration Division supported efforts on campus and across Travis County. Elfant’s goal of having more than 90 percent of Travis County residents registered to vote was surpassed in 2016.

Former Texas Secretary of State Carlos Cascos also visited campus to announce a statewide voter registration initiative, addressing an undergraduate class where the student volunteers were on hand ready to register student voters. Faculty members invited student volunteer deputy registrars to attend their classes to talk about and register student voters. I even made a debut dressed as Uncle Sam, beard and all.

Voter registration in Texas can be a tough process to navigate, particularly for students. They are often first-time voters, reliant on public transportation, move residences frequently, and are accustomed to handling most things online. Additionally, voter registration in Texas is a local government function, and for students, county government is not front-of-mind.

Committing to a goal and working with friends was key to overcoming these challenges — none of which deters the students’ commitment. Their goal was that through coordination with local government and through nonpartisan, campus-wide collaboration, any eligible student, regardless of political view or past voting history, would have an avenue to become a registered voter and to perform his or her civic duty on Election Day.

VIEWPOINTS: Young would-be voters should learn value of their ballots.

At the institute I lead, we teach that maintaining the vibrant civic sphere for community and society to flourish is not relegated to the actions that take place on Election Day. But helping a friend or fellow citizens become eligible and prepared to vote on Election Day is a great place to start. This is an honorable act of public service, and I am heartened by our youngest citizens who are eager to serve.

Nold is the director of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at the University of Texas.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Opinion

Moms are fighting for gun violence prevention in Texas – and winning
Moms are fighting for gun violence prevention in Texas – and winning

Five years ago, I watched news of the Sandy Hook school shooting unfold in horror. When the scope of the tragedy was confirmed, I got up to tell my husband, only to fall to the floor. Although I didn’t know the families impacted by this devastating shooting, as a mom of two young kids, it felt deeply personal to me. Immediately after Sandy Hook...
Facebook comments: Jan. 21, 2018
Facebook comments: Jan. 21, 2018

As reported by the American-Statesman’s Mark D. Wilson and Sebastian Herrera, Amazon announced that Austin made its short list of 20 cities that could become the site of its second headquarters. More than 238 cities in the U.S., Canada and Mexico submitted applications for Amazon’s HQ2. Dallas was the only other Texas city to make the cut...
Herman: Let’s eavesdrop on two Texas Repubs going at it on Twitter
Herman: Let’s eavesdrop on two Texas Repubs going at it on Twitter

Through the miracle (menace?) of Twitter, let’s eavesdrop on a conversation between two of our duly elected state officials. But first, let’s meet our players. State Rep. Jonathan Stickland (known to some as “Sticky”) is a Republican from the Dallas-Fort Worth suburb of Bedford. He’s a keep-government-out-of-our-lives...
Letters to the editor: Jan. 21, 2018
Letters to the editor: Jan. 21, 2018

Re: Jan. 16 commentary, “Herman: Sen. John Cornyn continues to tolerate President Trump.” Sen. Cornyn does more than “tolerate” President Trump. He voted for him, and by remaining silent when the president lies, bullies someone, insults our allies, makes a racist comment, or attacks America’s free press and all the millions...
‘Oliver Loving’ is a vividly rendered exploration of school shootings
‘Oliver Loving’ is a vividly rendered exploration of school shootings

Ten years later, a school shooting in West Texas is revisited from the perspective of a family it changed forever in Stefan Merrill Block’s “Oliver Loving.” What we know, what Eve Loving, her husband, Jed, and their son, Charlie, know, is this: a recent graduate named Hector Espina Jr. returned to the Bliss Township School campus...
More Stories