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

When the time comes to teach kids about voting, Austin High School government teachers Rolando Duarte and Stephanie Harris provide students with a robust, engaging lesson plan that includes voter registration drives, schoolwide mock elections and daily conversations about current events and hot-button issues.

Their approach, studies suggest, help build the foundation for a habit-voting citizen. Unfortunately, not every kid in Texas has a Mr. Duarte or Ms. Hill at their schools. That doesn’t mean Texas students should receive less.

Teaching students the significance of their vote is vital. By voting, young Texans have the power to become engaged citizens and to shape their communities through local and national elections.

HOW WE GOT HERE: Most Texas high schools aren’t registering students to vote.

For that reason, schools and the Texas secretary of state must improve the mechanisms in place to teach students the power of their vote. Under a 1985 state law intended to register eligible 18-year-old high school students to vote, the secretary of state is required to implement student voter registration efforts across Texas. High schools are required to distribute voter registration applications from the secretary of state twice a school year and to provide certified voting officials on campuses.

With that state law and one of the nation’s fastest-growing youth populations, Texas is well-positioned to be a leader in youth voting participation. Instead, Texas has the third-lowest youth voter participation in the country, beating only Oklahoma and West Virginia, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

One obstacle, according to a recent report by the Texas Civil Rights Project and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, is that most schools lack information about the state law and its requirements.

The report, released last week, found that just 14 percent of 1,428 public high schools in Texas requested voter registration forms from the secretary of state’s office in 2016. The study also found that most schools received little to no information about their obligations from the Secretary of State office.

IN HIS WORDS: Pablos encourages principals to cultivate teen voters.

Secretary of State Rolando Pablos acknowledged in a statement the “deplorable rate of participation in the past” and promised to work with high school principals to help improve participation. In 2013, a similar study by the Texas Civil Rights Project found that about two-thirds of 250 Texas schools and school districts surveyed were not meeting requirements to distribute voter registration forms to eligible students.

It’s important to note that many school districts, including Austin ISD, look to other sources for voter registration forms. Austin ISD, for instance, receives the forms from the Travis County tax office. Travis County is easy to work with, officials told us.

County officials mail and deliver voter registration forms, said Jessica Jolliffe, Austin ISD’s social studies administrative supervisor. They also deputize staff and provide presentations for students about voter registration.

The secretary of state’s office requires that already overburdened high school principals file official requests for voter registration forms. It’s an unnecessary step, as Travis County has shown. Pablos, with information provided on the Texas Education Agency website on the number of eligible seniors, should waive the request requirement and send registration forms at the beginning of each school year — and accept requests if more are needed.

JUAN CASTILLO: Bastrop revives Texas’ undertold story of ‘Mexican’ schools.

To ensure Texas reaches as many young would-be voters as possible, Pablos’ office should also establish a system, as suggested by the Civil Rights Project report, to track schools that are not complying with their obligations.

Such improvements, however, would only address voter registration for eligible students. Texas schools also need to do their part to better educate students about the power of their vote. Studies show that involving students in election-related learning, simulations of democratic processes and discussions of current events increases the likelihood that a young person will vote.

That’s easy to do during presidential elections, especially one filled with large personalities like those the 2016 campaign season provided, said Duarte, a 16-year government and history teacher. Getting students interested, however, becomes more challenging during nonpresidential election years, he said. That’s when he has to get creative.

This year, for example, Duarte hopes to energize students with news stories on voter restriction laws in Texas and other states.

Ideally, every Texas student would have a passionate teacher like Duarte who values civic education with an emphasis on voting. Even without one, students are entitled to that kind of instruction. The Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills require that high school students understand the responsibility, duties and obligations of citizenship.

FOLLOW US ON TWITTER: Viewpoints delivers the latest perspectives on current events.

Texas needs its young people to show up at the polls. Registering them to vote is one step. Teaching them the power of their vote is another. Providing both, experts say, increases the likelihood the student will become a voter. And, once a person votes, studies show he or she is more likely to vote again. And again.

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