- By Taylor Goldenstein American-Statesman Staff
No private high schools and just 14 percent of public high schools in Texas requested voter registration forms from the secretary of state’s office in 2016, a report released Wednesday found, even though a state law requires them to do so.
The report by the Texas Civil Rights Project and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law found that 198 out of 1,428 public high schools requested the forms.
Schools can receive voter registration forms from other organizations, such as the county. But the Texas Civil Rights Project suggested Wednesday that whatever’s being done isn’t working: Texas had the third-lowest youth voting rate in 2012, despite being one of the few states in the nation to have a law requiring high schools to hand out voter registration forms.
“This unique law should make Texas a leader in youth voter registration and turnout,” said Beth Stevens, voting rights director for the Texas Civil Rights Project. “But that’s not the reality.”
The Texas secretary of state currently requires high schools to submit a form to request the voter applications.
The civil rights groups called Wednesday for Secretary of State Rolando Pablos to discontinue that “ineffective and wholly unnecessary” request process, which they said was the “critical flaw” of the program, and instead send the forms to all schools automatically.
They’re also calling for a tracking process to gauge the success of schools’ implementation, better education for schools about the need for compliance and reminders for school principals about their obligations and training for schools.
Pablos acknowledged the low number of schools requesting registration forms in an August opinion piece in the American-Statesman, in which he wrote that he was making student voter registration a “top priority.”
In a statement Wednesday, Pablos said he’s embarking on an initiative to bring statewide attention to the requirement as well as the “deplorable rate of participation in the past.”
In a Sept. 12 letter to Texas superintendents, Pablos invited superintendents to sign an online pledge to encourage their principals to distribute voter forms. Those who sign will receive registration materials, he said.
At Austin school district high schools, forms are available in front offices and students also fill out the forms in their mandatory government classes, said Jessica Jolliffe, administrative supervisor of social studies.
All Austin high school principals and department heads, and some teachers, are trained to be deputy voter registrars. Last year, the district also had a large mock election, extending to elementary grades, and performed voter registration drives at its high schools, Jolliffe said.
Jolliffe said the district tried something new this year: It made deputy voter registrars available at graduation ceremonies. They registered 365 seniors.
“I am surprised by (the results of the report) because it’s something that’s easy to do,” Jolliffe said. “I think it might just be access to materials and access to the systems or the channels to be able to put something like this in place.”
Archie E. McAfee, executive director of the Texas Association of Secondary School Principals, said in an email Wednesday that high schools are already required to tend to so many other “non-academic” needs, such as nutrition, bullying prevention and media literacy, that voter registration “may not be on the top of their priority list.”
And with more than a quarter of Texas public school districts coping with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, they will “most likely will not be registering 18-years-olds to vote – at least any time soon,” he said.
Private schools might be similarly overwhelmed. Colleen Sauer, registrar in the Austin Waldorf High School office, said all juniors and seniors receive voter registration forms, but she wasn’t aware of any other initiatives.
“Private schools are generally smaller in numbers, so we have less staff,” Sauer said. “So (it) may be just because of sheer overload of work. It’s about being able to handle what you have to handle on a day-to-day basis versus something that seems maybe superfluous.”