In 1983, State Rep. Paul Ragsdale saw a problem in Texas high schools: Students weren’t registering to vote.
“In certain counties in this state, difficulties have arisen with the ability to go onto high school campuses to register eligible students to vote,” he wrote at the time.
So Ragsdale, a Dallas Democrat and staunch civil rights advocate who died in 2011, authored novel legislation calling on high schools to address the issue. His law required principals or other designated registrars to circulate voter registration forms and notices to eligible high schoolers at least twice a year.
Still on the books 34 years later, the law might look like a compelling rebuttal to arguments that Texas does little to encourage civic participation among its racially diverse student population. But many high schools have apparently failed to comply with the law in recent years, and election turnout among young voters has remained chronically low — less than half of Texans age 18 to 24 are registered to vote.
Now, as voting rights groups decry that lack of progress, Texas Secretary of State Rolando Pablos is bypassing principals — and turning to their bosses — in hopes of boosting compliance for a law that carries no penalties for those who flout it.
“I believe Texas students deserve better,” Pablos wrote to superintendents in a letter dated Tuesday. “I want to work with you and all of our state’s high school principals to improve upon the past.”
A law not followed
Voting rights advocates say some school administrators have long been unaware of or uninterested in their duties to register eligible students — who must be at least 17 years and 10 months old.
Just 14 percent of Texas public high schools requested voter registration applications from the Secretary of State ahead of the 2016 general elections, and no private school requested the applications, according to report released this week by the Texas Civil Rights Project.
High schools can still comply with the law if they register students using forms that they get elsewhere. But when the Texas Civil Rights Project surveyed principals in 2013, just 37 percent who responded said their schools distributed voter registration applications at least twice a year, while 23 percent said they never gave them to students.
“This unique law should make Texas a leader in youth voter registration and turnout,” Beth Stevens, the group’s voting rights director, told reporters Wednesday. “But that’s not the reality in Texas.”
What explains the inaction? Perhaps principals’ ever-growing list of duties keeps them from putting voter registration “on the top of their priority list,” said Archie McAfee, executive director of the Texas Association of Secondary School Principals.
In some schools, teachers have taken their own initiative.
For years, David Ring, a government teacher at Coronado High School in Lubbock, has provided seniors with voter registration forms at least once a semester. But he wasn’t designated as a registrar by the principal of his school until last year, so it’s the League of Women Voters — and not the secretary of state’s office — that has long been his source for the forms.
“For me, being a government teacher … I thought it was important,” Ring said. “And I knew having seniors, it was a good opportunity to get the form in their hands.”
Turning to superintendents
During his tenure, former Secretary of State Carlos Cascos zipped across the state, visiting high schools in an effort to boost compliance from busy principals. But Pablos, his successor, says it didn’t work. Now, he’s eying superintendents.
Pointing to El Paso Independent School District's recent commitment to comply, Pablos in his letter asked other superintendents to also pledge their commitments: “The future of our great state and our democracy depends on it,” he wrote.
If superintendents sign on to Pablos’ pledge, their high schools will automatically receive digital versions of voter registration applications that principals will then be expected to print and distribute to eligible students.
That's a change from the secretary of state’s earlier practice of simply sending reminders to principals that they should request registration forms. Still, voting rights groups want Pablos to do more, including automatically sending registration forms to all high schools each year.
It remains unclear how much that would boost compliance and track progress, since the 1983 law offers the secretary of state no enforcement power. For now, Pablos spokesman Sam Taylor said the office intends to publish a list of superintendents who sign up ahead of the Oct. 10 voter registration deadline and will look to community organizations to help hold school districts accountable.
On Friday, Pablos announced more than 140 superintendents had signed onto the pledge within days. "The response from superintendents has been tremendous,” he said in a statement. Statewide, Texas holds more than 1,200 school districts, open enrollment charter schools or other specialty schools.
At least one school district, Austin ISD, has managed to go beyond the legal requirements. It offers training to principals and social studies teachers district wide, allowing them to register students and parents visiting campus.
Additionally, high schoolers in the district must complete a government course that walks them through the registration and voting process. “It’s super easy,” said Jessica Jolliffe, the district’s administrative supervisor for social studies. “It shouldn’t be seen as an undue burden, but it’s really our responsibility.”
Chronic voter apathy
Schools are a prime venue for boosting engagement in elections, and the 1983 law — if followed — would be a useful tool, voting rights advocates say. Texas has long sat near the bottom nationally in voter registration and election turnout, and engagement rates among young Texans are particularly low.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that roughly 48 percent of eligible Texans aged 18 to 24 were registered to vote in 2016 — a figure easily surpassed by older groups. Texans aged 45 to 64 registered at a 73 percent clip, while those 65 and older were even more likely to register.
Critics of the state’s track record on voting access have questioned whether its leaders even want more young people to vote. Over the past six years, Texas has spent millions of dollars — with little success — defending a law that excludes college IDs from a narrow list of photo identification acceptable at the polls, for instance.
Failing to take advantage of the school voter registration law indicates state leaders “just pay lip service” to encouraging young people to vote, said state Rep. Celia Israel, vice chair of the House Elections Committee. The Austin Democrat has proposed allowing Texans to register to vote online, which experts say would particularly entice young voters. But such legislation has failed to wriggle through the Legislature.
“The law is only as good as the support that’s behind it,” Israel said.