This Summer, Aileen Garza, 21, has been tabling at various events across the Rio Grande Valley. As a Youth Organizer for Planned Parenthood Texas Votes, her mission is clear: to register as many people in the Valley to vote as possible. When people see her sitting behind a table at a music show, they often wonder why she is there.
“They come up, ask questions, and that’s usually when we are able to register them to vote,” Garza said.
Garza likes to spark a conversation with people she meets about why it is important to register to vote. She brings up current issues regarding immigration, reproductive justice, and LGBTQ rights as reasons why people should register to vote. Ensuring Valley residents register to vote is something Garza holds close to her heart and stems from her high school days.
When Garza was attending Edinburg North High School, she was registered to vote as soon as she turned 18 in 2014. Edinburg North High School is one of only 15 high schools in the Valley that apply a state law that is seldom enforced in the state of Texas. Garza credits her high school for getting her involved in the democratic process as soon as she was eligible.
Unfortunately, most students in the Valley are not given the same opportunity as Garza.
A new report published by the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) exposes the low compliance of the Texas Election Code, the law that ensured that Garza was registered to vote. The Texas Election Code mandates that at least twice a year, principals (or their designee) of public and private high schools must serve as the “high school deputy registrar” and offer applications for students to register to vote. The law also requires the schools to proactively distribute the forms rather than having them available only when a student asks, as described in the TCRP report.
Introduced in 1985, TCRP concluded that compliance with this law has been consistently low over the decades.
In 2016, only 14 percent of all Texas high schools requested voter registration forms from the Secretary of State, according to James Slattery, senior staff attorney at TCRP. That rate went up to 34 percent in 2017. Still, two-thirds of all Texas high schools failed to take the first step toward following the code. While the report has yet to be divided on a regional basis, a map provided by TCRP breaks down how schools are following the law.
In the Valley, there were 90 high schools listed across all four counties: Starr, Hidalgo, Willacy, and Cameron. Of those 90 schools represented in the map, only 15 high schools had requested registration forms, including Los Fresnos CISD who requested forms for their entire district. The Valley rate for requested voter registration forms is 17 percent, well below the state’s already low average.
While the map showed that all three high schools for Mission CISD are not complying with the law, Mission CISD claims that they are registering students once they become eligible. Craig B. Verley, Director of Public Relations and Marketing with Mission CISD, checked in with all Mission CISD high schools to verify that they are in compliance.
“All three of our Mission CISD high schools do provide students an opportunity to register to vote each school year, and have for some time,” Verley told Neta. Although the district does not request voter registration forms directly from the Secretary of State, they acquire them from the local Mission post offices. Strategically, Mission Collegiate High School, Mission High School and Veterans Memorial High School “use their government and economics courses and teachers as the conduit for providing the opportunities.”
Similarly, the map shows that only two of the five PSJA high schools comply with the law. Arianna Vazquez-Hernandez, Director of Communications with PSJA ISD, claims otherwise and said that PSJA government teachers have taken the lead in ensuring students register to vote in all five high schools.
“PSJA ISD is a leader in the area for going beyond the state requirements,” Vazquez-Hernandez said. “While our government teachers help us ensure the students get the information about their [civic] duty, we help them by ensuring all eligible students get to register to vote at their campus and at an annual voter registration rally we host around September.”
PSJA ISD has also expanded this work for district staff and parents, according to Hernandez.
Neta also reached out to Edinburg CISD and Weslaco ISD for comment on this law, but no response was provided.
While some schools had been complying for years, others were surprised to learn that this was a law, like Sandra Herrera-Walker, a teacher at McAllen ISD and a member of the American Federation of Teachers of McAllen. “Incredulity” was how she described her reaction when she recently learned about it.
“The fact that the law had been around since the 1980s and was essentially being either ignored or school district personnel were completely ignorant of it was so confusing to me,” Walker said.
“A member of the McAllen ISD school board mentioned to me that his own child, who graduated recently from high school, had not been registered although she was eligible. This was after he was told by someone that McAllen ISD was complying.”
The anonymous McAllen ISD board member that Walker referred to is planning on starting a project that ensures all McAllen ISD high schools comply with the law, according to Walker. If schools were provided with support and enforcing this law, like Garza’s school was, Valley high schools could be registering thousands upon thousands of new voters every year.
The root of the issue does not start in South Texas, according to the TCRP, but rather with the Secretary of State. Research from TCRP found that a critical reason that compliance, in the Valley or anywhere in Texas, is low is due to the Secretary of State’s office not doing an adequate job at providing support to schools, principals, teachers, and personnel. Knowledge about the law is critically low not only among the general population but alarmingly so amongst people whose job it is to help register students at high schools.
Both TCRP and Garza are calling for the Secretary of State to do better outreach, to educate schools about the law, and proactively send voter registration forms to schools. TCRP also recommends that teachers, parents, students, and community members work at creating the change in their communities, and to work with schools to ensure they are in compliance.