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.

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