Commentary: How Texas is trying to silence the voices of young voters

If there were any lingering doubt that our state leaders are reluctant to let young Texans get anywhere near the voting booth, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton just wiped it away.

It’s the latest move in a concerted effort to get young people to “just say no” to voting.

The attorney general, in response to a complaint from state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, issued an opinion in which he says public school districts would violate state law if they transported eligible students to the voting polls.

What’s especially galling is part of Paxton’s reasoning. He argues that taking a student to the polls would lack an “educational purpose.”

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

It should embarrass us all that politicians continue to spend their time inventing barriers to voting rather than do everything possible to ensure young Texans have access to the ballot box and participate in our democracy.

But this isn’t just an attack on civic engagement. It’s also an attack on public education.

A principle of getting an education is to prepare us to be “thoughtful, active citizens.” This is explicitly written into the Texas Education Code and is even cited, cynically so, by the attorney general in his opinion.

We have a hard time believing that any reasonable person would argue that voting is not part of being a well-rounded citizen. Unless, of course, the real goal is to play politics, which sure seems to be the purpose behind Paxton’s opinion.

Another explanation is fear of what educating young people on their voting rights means for this state.

We know that Texas has historically had a depressingly low level of voter participation by the overall electorate. Turnout here is among the lowest in the country. Turnout among young people is even worse.

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

We also believe that voting is habit-forming. Once an individual casts a ballot for the first time in their life, it’s probable that person will cast a second vote and, we hope, become a lifetime voter.

And we also know this: Young people in this state — which we call the Texas Rising generation — are among the strongest supporters of equality for LGBTQ people, access to abortion and other reproductive health care, and strong public education.

And therein lies the fear for state leaders like the attorney general. They are hostile to those goals and seem truly afraid of what will happen when a rising generation that supports them actually turns out at the polls in larger numbers.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time state politicians have been hostile toward young people becoming engaged in the political process.

In 2011, the Texas Legislature approved a restrictive law that required government-issued identification to vote. In doing so, legislators rebuffed an attempt to include student ID cards issued by state colleges or universities as an accepted form of voter ID. However, those same lawmakers made sure a concealed handgun license was an acceptable form of ID. It’s clear who they want — and don’t want — to vote in our elections.

The silver lining in Paxton’s opinion is it’s just that: an opinion that is nonbinding. But it is nevertheless an attempt to intimidate.

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We hope Texas Educators Vote, the nonpartisan civic engagement group whose work triggered Bettencourt’s letter to the attorney general, will continue to do what it can to encourage districts to educate students on voting. We applaud their efforts, as well as the efforts of school districts that work to fulfill the mission required of them by the Texas Education Code.

My friends and I have pledged to do our part, too. I’m proud to say that many of us have been deputized to register voters and have been working on our respective university campuses and communities across the state to do that.

We plan to vote, too, this year and every year – whether our state’s elected leaders like it or not.

Barron is a student at St. Mary’s University and a member of Texas Rising.

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