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College voters held back by Texas election law, lack of on-campus polling sites

By Alex Nguyen, The Texas Tribune

College voters held back by Texas election law, lack of on-campus polling sites” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Jay Guillory was too busy trying to get Texas A&M University-Commerce students registered to vote to even think about whether he would cast his own ballot early or on Election Day. As the school’s assistant director of leadership and service, he spent weeks helping with registration drives at busy campus spots.

But Guillory knows registering voters is just half the battle. Hunt County in North Texas has only one early-voting location for the Nov. 8 midterm — and it’s more than 14 miles away from A&M-Commerce’s campus. The closest Election Day polling location is half a mile away. He says the distant polling locations pose a major challenge to students, especially those who don’t have cars.

“We worked to get our students registered in this county,” Guillory said. “But if they don’t have access to vote, how can they do that?”

This year, A&M-Commerce will once again drive students to the polls. With a $3,000 grant from the MTV Campus Challenge, which aims to expand student voter access, the university’s 14-passenger shuttle bus will provide three trips on Oct. 28 and run every 20 minutes on Election Day, Guillory said.

“We made sure our students are educated and registered, and then we’re turning our focus now to turnout,” he said.

According to a Texas Tribune analysis, only 50% of the state’s 36 public universities have an on-campus early-voting location this year. That drops to around 20% for Texas’ nine historically Black colleges and universities, with only two having voting sites before Election Day.

“I was surprised that so few of [the HBCUs] actually have early-voting polls,” said Jennifer Clark, an associate professor of political science at the University of Houston. “In terms of showing inclusion of younger Texans and a more diverse population, I would think that many elections administrators would be wise to expand that access, especially to the HBCUs in the state.”

That lack of on-campus voting sites comes after a surge in young-voter turnout in recent years — though it still lags participation rates of other age groups. Turnout of Texans under 30 jumped from around 8% in 2014 to almost 26% in 2018, but this was still lower than the state’s overall participation rate of about 46%.

Organizers and voting-access advocates say that while apathy is a factor, college student voters experience obstacles that make it difficult to increase their turnout. Beyond a lack of campus polling locations — which is partially the product of a 2019 state law prohibiting temporary voting sites during the 12 days of early voting — Texas laws also exclude student IDs as an acceptable form of required identification and restrict same-day, online and automatic voter registration.

Huston-Tillotson University on April 16, 2020.
Huston-Tillotson University, one of nine historically black colleges and universities in Texas, in 2020. Credit: Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

For Election Day, 55% of public universities have voting locations, and the number of HBCUs with on-campus voting doubles compared with early voting. The average distance to the closest polling place for both groups also shrinks.

The Tribune’s analysis found that the size of a school’s student population predicts access. Nine of the 12 universities with the largest student populations have early-voting locations this year. Meanwhile, among the 12 schools with the smallest student enrollments, 3 have early-voting locations.

Patrick Flavin, a Baylor University political science professor, said he thought the number of universities with early-voting sites would be much larger because many campuses are big population areas and have the facilities to accommodate voting centers.

The most notable exception among bigger schools is Texas A&M University in College Station, the state’s largest public university with over 70,000 students. While the campus will have a voting site on Election Day, Brazos County leaders have drawn criticism this year for removing the usual on-campus location during the early-voting period. The county has since agreed to spend $5,000 to help bus voters to the closest early-voting site but decided not to further extend voting hours — as requested by organizers — citing difficulties finding workers.

The Memorial Student Center at Texas A&M University in College Station on Tuesday, September 14, 2021.
The Memorial Student Center at Texas A&M University in College Station in 2021. Data shows it was one of the county’s most popular early-voting sites in recent general elections. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

“Student activists in College Station will not back down,” Kristina Samuel, an A&M senior and president of voter engagement group MOVE Texas A&M, said in a press release last week. “We hope that Brazos County will step up and meet our demands to extend early voting polling hours, but, either way, we are ready with the busing program to help students on campus exercise their right to vote.”

State law costs many colleges voting sites

Kennedy Fears fondly remembers engaging students to vote in 2018 on the one day early voting was available at Huston-Tillotson University.

“It was just a huge crowd with smiles on our faces,” said the college senior and organizer with Texas Rising, a progressive youth engagement initiative. “Professors were also encouraging their students like, ‘Hey, you got to go to the union. Go vote!’”

But her experience with on-campus early voting at the Austin-based HBCU was short-lived.

In 2019, Republican lawmakers ended temporary sites and mandated the costlier option of keeping polling locations open for the entire early-voting period, arguing that the former allowed for the “selective harvesting of targeted voters.” Since many temporary early-voting locations were on college campuses, Democrats sued the state alleging that this law suppressed students’ voting access, but the challenge was later dismissed.

As a result, Huston-Tillotson lost access to a temporary on-campus voting site.

“Student leaders were pissed. We were like, ‘You’re making it more difficult for us to vote, to have that motivation to want to go out and vote,” Fears said.

Also in 2019, state Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, introduced a bill requiring counties to place voting locations on campuses with at least 10,000 students, which would have covered about 20 public universities and one HBCU, based on fall 2020 enrollment. State Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, wrote legislation that lowered that suggested threshold to at least 5,000 students in 2019 and again in 2021. That would have required voting locations at around 30 public universities, two of which are HBCUs, and at one private HBCU. But those efforts failed — and with just over 1,000 students, Huston-Tillotson would not have benefited from them.

This year, the HBCU will have an on-campus site for Election Day, but the closest early-voting location is half a mile away. Fears said the lack of an on-campus location has made it harder to get students excited about the elections and early voting, but organizers are determined to continue engaging them.

“Our goal right now is just keeping people hyped. You can always be registered, but are you going to get up and go vote?” Fears said.

And three years after the Legislature banned temporary voting sites, some local governments are still confused.

Webb County commissioners had to convene a special meeting Oct. 21 to update their polling locations after they were made aware of the law just days before the start of early voting. After a last-minute scramble, they decided to turn mobile early-voting locations — including one at Texas A&M International University — into permanent sites instead of removing them.

“Whatever we need to do to add, let’s go above and beyond,” Webb County Judge Tano Tijerina said during the meeting.

Mixed reactions to moving on-campus locations

At the University of Texas at Austin, the state’s second-largest public university, with close to 52,000 students, there are two polling locations on campus this year. While one remains within the campus’ undergraduate core, the second site was moved from a central location to one almost a mile away to ensure that the facility complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Members from Hook The Vote, a nonpartisan civic engagement group at the university, said this change could exacerbate the main voting location’s wait time during peak periods. Ana Fuente, an organizer and UT-Austin junior, recalled seeing in 2020 a queue that wrapped around the large building twice.

“This is an election that has everyone’s attention,” she said. “That drastic wait time can happen again.”

Students and faculty walk past the Peter T. Flawn Academic Center at The University of Texas while early voting takes place Oct. 25.
Students and faculty walk past the Peter T. Flawn Academic Center at the University of Texas while early voting takes place on Tuesday. Credit: Azul Sordo/The Texas Tribune

Beyond the lines, organizers pointed out that the distance can add accessibility challenges for students with disabilities and those without vehicles. Research has also shown that distance to poll sites reduces voter turnout.

In response, Travis County is increasing the number of machines at the university’s main polling location to 12. “The message we want to convey very clearly is this is not an effort to in any way limit the ability of students or the regular public to access voting places,” county clerk Rebecca Guerrero told The Daily Texan student newspaper.

Not all relocations have been criticized, though.

The University of Texas at El Paso senior Destiny Guerra and junior Glenda Bustillos, organizers with the Campus Vote Project and MTV Campus Challenge, cheered the move of their on-campus voting site to the student union building this year. They say having the polls at this student hub will bring in more voters, especially when considering the large number of commuter students.

University of Texas at El Paso students Destiny Guerra (left) and Glenda Bustillos are pictured on the UTEP campus in El Paso on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022. The two defended a polling site on their campus during the 2020 elections and currently conducting extensive voter outreach to get more students to vote.
University of Texas at El Paso students Destiny Guerra (left) and Glenda Bustillos are pictured on the UTEP campus on Tuesday. The two are currently conducting extensive voter outreach to get more students to vote. Credit: Paul Ratje for The Texas Tribune

The site is “definitely something more accessible,” Guerra said.

The change has also allowed them to shift their resources from awareness about the election toward educating students about voting and elections more broadly.

“We really have been wanting to express the importance of Latino voting since many are first-generation students on campus,” Bustillos said.

Invisible challenges

On top of the gap in on-campus voting access, organizers and experts say Texas’ voting law creates challenges for younger voters.

For instance, college students often move residences, which would require them to constantly update their voter registration information if they want to vote where they attend school. Texas also remains one of the few states to not accept student ID cards as a form of voter ID. Former state Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, unsuccessfully attempted to add school IDs to the list of accepted identifications in 2019.

And Texas’ lack of same-day voter registration, which over 20 states in the U.S. allow, is a major barrier to robust youth participation. Research shows that being able to register the same day as an election “disproportionately increases turnout among individuals aged 18–24.”

“Same-day registration is the easiest way to increase turnout,” said Mark Owens, an associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at Tyler.

Texas officials, unlike their counterparts in much of the country, have also long resisted online voter registration, which has similarly shown to increase youth turnout. The state had to slightly relax its rules in 2020 after a court ruling required it to allow voters to register when they update their driver’s licenses online.

“The state has placed more of a burden on the younger voters. And so even with access to polls, it can be a bit difficult to see a big jump in that turnout sometimes due to some of those other restrictions,” said Clark, the University of Houston associate professor.

For organizers like MOVE Texas advocacy director Alex Birnel, these hurdles require investing most of the organization’s resources in voter registration. He pointed to automatic voter registration — a method started in Oregon in 2016 that has spread to many other states — as another solution. In Texas, state Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston, introduced a bill in 2019 to enable automatic registration for eligible students, but that legislation also didn’t pass.

With a new legislative session coming up in January, Birnel said MOVE Texas and its partners will keep pushing policymakers to pursue long-term reforms.

“We deserve better,” he said.

Looking to the Legislature

In Texas, many successful efforts to support student voters have come from legal challenges. In the last midterm cycle, Prairie View A&M sued Waller County, quickly prompting the county to extend on-campus early-voting access. More recently, Bexar County regained over 40 polling locations for Election Day following a court order earlier this month. These sites now cover multiple campuses including St. Philip’s College, an HBCU in San Antonio.

“One of the proud moments about the new list of election locations is how many colleges we actually cover,” Democratic Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Calvert said during an Oct. 18 commissioners court meeting. “I really think that young people are going to be very pivotal in this particular election.”

But Democrats have had a much tougher time trying to expand voter access and voting options with bills pitched in a Legislature long controlled by Republicans. In many cases, the legislation died in committees.

Last year, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed sweeping legislation that further tightened state election laws and limited counties’ ability to expand voting options. Senate Bill 1 spurred months of legislative clashes and standoffs, during which Democrats — propelled by concerns that the legislation raises new barriers for marginalized voters — forced Republicans into two extra legislative sessions.

A partisan divide can also be seen on the ground. The Tribune’s analysis shows that Democrat-leaning counties are more likely to have on-campus early-voting locations than Republican-leaning ones, even among larger areas.

Menéndez, the Democratic state senator who has introduced a slew of bills to increase voting access, is not discouraged. Instead, he told the Tribune that he would be refiling many of them in 2023 if he’s reelected in his solidly blue district.

“As elected officials, we should be doing everything that we can to help make it easier for lawful citizens who have a legal right to vote, no matter what their age is,” he said.

He considers access to polling locations to be the biggest challenge for students. Ultimately, Menéndez shares the same sentiment as many organizers and experts that state and local governments should invest in youth voters instead of being dissuaded by statistics and reinforcing a vicious cycle.

“I like to show young people that by investing and having a polling site by law on your campus, we’re saying to you, ‘We want to hear your voice. We want to know your opinion,’” he said. “And I think it would cause more elected officials and candidates to go talk to these young people about the issues that are important in their lives.”

Disclosure: Baylor University, Huston-Tillotson University, MOVE Texas, Prairie View A&M University, St. Philip’s College, Texas A&M University, Texas A&M International University, the University of Houston, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Texas at El Paso 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.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/10/28/texas-young-voter-turnout-access/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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