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This Is Your Texas

Q&A: Three experts discuss civic engagement in Texas

Our Facebook community This Is Your Texas spent the month of March discussing civic engagement in the Lone Star State. We took some of the group’s questions to three experts on the subject.

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Would giving Texans the ability to vote by mail or cast their ballots online help the state boost its low voter turnout? That's just one question that The Texas Tribune’s This Is Your Texas community tackled recently in a month-long discussion on civic engagement.

This is an especially hot topic during an election year. So we asked members of our Facebook group what questions they have pertaining to voting, voter registration, voter apathy and getting involved in the community.

Then, the Tribune spoke to Susan Nold, the director of the University of Texas at Austin’s Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life; Kassie Barroquillo, a graduate research assistant at the institute; and Jay Jennings, a post-doctoral research fellow for the institute, about civic engagement in Texas and how to increase voter turnout ahead of the 2018 elections.

Many of the questions below are crowdsourced from members of the group. The following is an edited and condensed version of the interview.

What’s the best measure of civic engagement, in addition to voter turnout?

Susan Nold: At the Annette Strauss Institute, we recently published a Texas Civic Health Index Report that offers a definition of what a community’s “civic health” means. In that, we measure civic life three ways: political participation; philanthropic work such as donating to a charitable cause, volunteering your time and joining groups; and social connectedness such as knowing and trusting your neighbors.

Studies show millennials continue to have the lowest voter turnout of any age group. What can we do to build stronger civic engagement among young Texans?

For all the talk about rising voter turnout, the Secretary of State's results seem to show that the 2.5 million voter turnout only accounts for roughly 16 percent of registered voters. — Melissa Lum, in our Facebook group.

Kassie Barroquillo: Low civic engagement is not particularly a millennial issue; it’s a young person issue. As a young person, you don’t have ties to your community yet, you’re often transient and you haven’t learned everything there is to know about your political and civic life yet. And even though millennial voter turnout numbers are lower than previous young generations’, so are voter turnout numbers for every age group.

Jay Jennings: Online voter registration might be one example of a way to reach the younger generation. I also think civic education is very important — not just training people to learn facts about the three branches of government, but also training people on how to best participate in politics and get involved in their community.

Thirty-seven states have online voter registration, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Advocates say it saves money, though others are skeptical of potential voter fraud. Will Texas ever implement such a system?

Texas is behind the times when it comes to voter registration. We still don’t have Online Voter Registration (OVR). ... In states with OVR there have been no reported security breaches. It is well past time for Texas to modernize its voter registration system. — Grace Chimene, in our Facebook group.

Nold: There’s been interest in that issue for quite some time and bills filed in the Legislature to allow online voter registration. I believe it has bipartisan support. I know there will be groups pushing for this issue again during the next legislative session, but I can’t say for sure when it’ll happen. 

Barroquillo: Most of my research is with young people, and we’re seeing that same-day voter registration is more impactful than online voter registration for young college students. That’s another piece of legislation that may have power in improving voter turnout. 

What do you hope for the future of civics education in Texas? 

Nold: At the Annette Strauss Institute, we have a long history of offering educational programming for Texas school students. I believe our programs are an important supplement to social studies and government education because they focus on emphasizing the citizen’s role in taking action.

For example, we have some lessons that teach students how to vote so they become more familiar with the process. That includes registering to vote and identifying where to go on election day. I think, ideally, government and social studies instruction in this state should include more action-oriented education. 

Barroquillo: From a university level, we need to continue that civic education work to ensure that some of these practices are institutionalized. One example would be to have things like voter registration come from a top-down approach. I think that would make a huge difference in voter turnout for young people. 

Though Democrats fell short of a “blue wave” during the 2018 primary elections, there’s clear enthusiasm within the party as they prepare for the November elections. How does Texas, a red state, compare to blue states in terms of civic engagement?

Jennings: If you look at the states that are high in turnout and the states that are low in turnout, you see a pretty mixed bag of both red and blue states. Even though we think about partisanship and polarization as being something that rules our world sometimes, this is something that kind of exists outside of that. 

Nold: Texas does face some unique challenges, but not because we’re a “red” state. I think Texas’ civic engagement challenges may stem, to some degree, from its growing population. When people move to a new town or community, it takes them a while to get connected into the political environment. In the end, we must continue to pay attention to what avenues we have for getting new residents quickly plugged into the civic side of their communities. 

How can voters lobby politicians about increasing voter engagement?

Barroquillo: I think the very first thing that anyone who wants to advocate for this needs to do is understand the barriers in their community. The barriers in Austin are very different from the barriers in Houston. So first, figure out what your barriers are and then approach it that way.

If your barrier is that there are not enough voting locations and they’re not easily accessible, you need to approach your county government for that. If you have a population that is disproportionately affected by voter ID laws, then that’s a state issue. Your officials will listen to you more if you’re talking about something that directly affects the community they represent.

Jennings: If you’re part of an organization — even if it’s not political at all, like a neighborhood or even a church group — try scheduling a meeting or gathering with your local representative. That might help you get a meeting face-to-face with whoever you need to talk to and just say, “This is something we think is important and want to advocate for.” 

Nold: The more folks who engage around issues related to voting and political participation, the better. We don’t need to let this issue become dominated only by political parties or political partisans. All of us, as citizens in a democracy, want voters to have the knowledge they need to cast a ballot and have access to the opportunity to vote.

What are the best ways to motivate or convince voters to still vote, even if it seems a race’s outcome is basically determined? 

When hyper-liberal Austin produces NO congressional seats because it's been broken into five pieces and thinly connected to more rural parts of Texas, the game is rigged and it's easy to feel like there's no point in going to vote. — Natalie Tsai, in our Facebook group

Nold: Election outcomes prove to us that votes do matter. The votes cast in an election determine the winner — that’s just how it works. I think encouraging your friends to vote has power and that’s effective. In Texas, there’s a law that says employees should be given off time — without penalties — to go vote on election day so we need to let employers know that exists. We all play a part as citizens, so we need to encourage one another to vote and make it known that we have a role to play in these elections.

Barroquillo: In addition to “my vote doesn’t matter” we also hear “I don’t have time to vote.” That’s one of the top reasons people give for not voting. I think we all need to be better at reminding people about early voting or absentee ballots because, realistically, the more people you have going in earlier, the more people that are voting.

Jennings: Even if you think the top of the ballot races are all but decided, there’s often races in your local community that are closer and that are important — and they may be decided by a handful of votes. We need to let people know that it’s not just about the race for governor or senator, and that voting for these other, more local things are important for your community. In my opinion, your vote is way more powerful in these local elections than in some of the national or state-level races.

I think being a voter is powerful, and it’s important to exercise your right and making a statement that you’re a citizen in the society you live in and you’re part of your community.

Note: This story was inspired by a discussion on education policy happening now in our Facebook group, This is Your Texas. Sign up here to join the conversation.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin and the Annette Strauss Institute For Civic Life have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.    

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