Texas law could make voting harder for students

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A new Texas law that imposes new restrictions on voting could greatly impede students at the polls and limit their ability to register to vote or organize get-out-the-vote activities on campus or off.

Senate Bill 1 is a sweeping piece of legislation that will ban 24-hour and drive-through voting, create new vote-by-mail ID mandates and empower partisan poll watchers by allowing them “free movement” at the polls. Governor Greg Abbott signed the bill into law last week after the Republican-led Legislature approved it during a second special session. It will go into effect before next year’s state elections. Texas Democrats blocked previous versions of the bill by fleeing the state to prevent the House of Representatives from having a quorum. 

Voting experts say the bill will pose challenges for students trying to vote by banning the unsolicited distribution of mail-in ballot applications and restricting how and where they can vote.

“We have got to remember that Texas already is a state that’s very difficult for voting in many ways,” said Robert Brandon, president and CEO of Fair Elections Center, a national nonpartisan voting rights and election reform organization. “And so this increases the barriers to registration and voting in a number of different ways that can have an impact on students.”

Even before the governor signed the bill, “Texas was already arguably the worst state in the country when it comes to access to vote for young people,” said Carolyn DeWitt, president of Rock the Vote, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to building the political power of young people. “It’s not a surprise Governor Abbott signed this voter suppression bill into law, but it is a disgrace. He continues to implement antidemocracy policies aimed at limiting the power of voters in the state.”

Texas law already restricts mail-in voting to people who are over 65, who are out of the county on Election Day or who have a disability or illness that prevents them from voting in person; during the 2020 election, it was one of just six states that refused to open up mail-in balloting to all voters because of the pandemic. The new law bans drop boxes for vote-by-mail ballots and requires mail-in voters to provide their driver’s license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number. So students who in the past have used their disabilities or out-of-county residence to obtain mail-in ballots now have extra hurdles to overcome in casting them.

The new law also makes it a felony for any election official to send out unsolicited applications or ballots to vote by mail. Youth voter turnout nationwide was the highest ever in 2020 partly due to the tactics some states employed, including automatically registering voters at motor vehicle agencies and sending ballots to every registered voter.

As civic groups across the nation try to continue the wave of youth voter turnout in 2021, Brandon said it will be harder for students in Texas to register and vote on campus. Since 2017, those running voter registration events on or off campus have had to be appointed as Texas volunteer deputy registrars — meaning students from out of the county or state aren’t allowed to help other students register. The new law creates additional barriers for campus vote organizers seeking to collect and drop off student ballots, Brandon said.

“For many students, because they’re transient, they need to re-register,” Brandon said. “And as long as the registration process continues to have more barriers, it just makes it more difficult. Already young people are registering at lower rates than other folks.”

DeWitt shared similar worries, saying that young voters are mobilized through their communities, which can prove difficult with the volunteer deputy registrar.

“New and marginalized voters are registered and mobilized across the country by nonprofit organizations and institutions such as churches, colleges, universities and civic organizations,” DeWitt said. “However, Texas law largely prohibits organizations and individuals from helping these voters through the registration process.”

It’s bad enough that Texas law already prohibits college IDs as an acceptable form of identification at polls, DeWitt said. Students from out of state or from low-income backgrounds need flexible voting options.

In addition to students, the new voting law will disproportionately impact people of color, who make up 95 percent of Texas’s population growth since 2010, and those from low-income backgrounds, opponents say. DeWitt said the law is just another way to stifle people’s voices.

“One can’t deny the demographic changes happening in the state of Texas,” DeWitt said. “And it’s evident that Governor Abbott and supporters of this law are manipulating the system in an effort to silence the voices and deny the votes of a rising diverse electorate, both today and in the future.”

For the Fair Elections Center, which launched the Campus Vote Project, the goal is to provide the best information for students on how to access the ballot and register, Brandon said.

“When there’s more barriers in place, the need is even greater to make sure that there’s a message to students on a regular basis from trusted sources like their school and their professors,” Brandon said. “The real role of the Fair Elections Center and the Campus Vote Project is to give students and young people the understanding of the power they have at the ballot.”

In the coming months, Rock the Vote will be reaching out to young voters across Texas to make sure they understand how this new law impacts them and what they need to do to vote, DeWitt said. One way, she said, is by engaging young people through “trusted messengers,” including peers, teachers, athletes, artists and celebrities.

“The truth is that young people are very passionate about the issues, but they need to be empowered with the information and resources to participate, which is even more important and complicated with the passage of this voter suppression law,” DeWitt said.

DeWitt added that the new Texas bill wouldn’t have been passed if the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was still standing and urged passage of the federal John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. The Lewis act seeks to reinstate the oversight power of the Voting Rights Act, which would revive the power of the Justice Department to bar some discriminatory changes to election procedures.

“It’s time we restore the VRA with the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to prevent against discriminatory policies and to set national voting standards and reduce corruption in our system with the For the People Act,” DeWitt said. “We need federal legislation to protect voters in states like Texas.”