Texas High Schools Are Supposed to Help Students Register to Vote. Many Aren't.


A new study from the Texas Civil Rights Project tracked which schools had requested voter registration forms from the state and which hadn't.

Vote sign

A new study from the Texas Civil Rights Project tracked which schools had requested voter registration forms from the state and which hadn't.

In Texas, principals not only oversee their schools but they're also required to act as high school deputy registrars, offering voter registration at least twice each school year. In order to do that, principals have to request "a sufficient supply" of voter registration forms from the school board or state, but a new report from the Texas Civil Rights Project shows just how infrequently that happens.

Looking at a roughly four-semester period from October 2016 to February 2018, the organization was able to verify that only 28 percent of public high schools with at least 20 seniors requested the forms from the state. Because some school districts also requested these forms on behalf of the schools, the number creeps up to 34 percent, assuming the districts distributed the forms to every high school.

"Our schools must prepare young Texans for the future, which includes teaching them how to participate in our democracy. For more than five years, TCRP has attempted to work with the Secretary of State to help schools comply with our unique high school student voter registration law,” said James Slattery, Senior Staff Attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project and author of the report, in a statement issued with the findings.

The report also breaks things down geographically: 82 percent of the state's 232 counties with at least one high school with more than 20 seniors "did not have a single high school request a voter registration form."

In total, the report estimates that some 183,421 seniors, many of whom were likely eligible to vote, weren't offered the legally required opportunity. "We owe it to these young Texans to make sure they are equipped with the tools they need to participate in the democracy they will soon inherit from us," Slattery stated.

One easy way to make sure schools have the forms they need? Don't wait for them to ask. The report recommends that the state mail out the forms at beginning of each school year, "and preferably at the beginning of every semester." The document also details several other potential reforms, including new outreach tools for schools, better tracking to determine when schools are not complying with the law and guidance for principals to designate someone other than themselves as the high school deputy registrar.

The report builds on years of research and reports from the organization tracking the state's progress. One such effort between the civil rights organization and The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law found that just 14 percent of the state's public high schools had requested voter registration materials from the state in 2016, a presidential election year. The organization also found that, of the five largest counties in the state, "none had more than 12 percent of their high schools request voter registration forms" in 2016.

Across the country, young people are consistently underrepresented at the polls and 18-year-olds, in particular, are less likely than the general public to be registered to vote, which is why many states have laws encouraging voter registration for eligible high school students. In 2010, ProjectVote released a report documenting best practices for registering high school students, including California's online "MyVote" registration system that allowed students to sign up online. Other states enlisted students to help craft registration plans or even created a student advisory board to coordinate the efforts.

In Texas, where voter restrictions have raised legal challenges, highlighting the failure of schools to comply with state law is just one facet of the voting landscape.

Accompanying the latest report is an interactive map detailing whether a district or school requested the forms. Explore the map below.

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