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More Than 200,000 Young Texans Eligible To Vote In November Can't Vote In Primaries

UT Austin students line up to vote at the Flawn Academic Center in 2016.
UT Austin students line up to vote at the Flawn Academic Center in 2016.

Early voting for the upcoming primaries has started, but hundreds of thousands of young people who will be eligible to vote in the November general election can’t participate in Super Tuesday.

James Slattery, a senior staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said 17-year-olds who aren’t allowed to vote in the primary feel like their voices don’t matter.

“It makes no sense to these young people that they can only vote in one half of the election that selects our leaders without any input into the candidates that will make it in into that final round,” said Slattery.

In Texas, voters must turn 18 on or before Super Tuesday to cast a ballot in the primary election. According to the Texas Demographics Center (TDC), more than 280,000 17-year-olds will turn 18 in the time between the primary and general elections. TDC doesn’t track whether or not those young people have documentation of legal residency. 

Kesley Tasch, a senior at McCallum High School in Austin, is one of those 17-year-olds. 

She also sits on the advisory council of Own Our Vote, a group that aims to increase voter registration and turnout among young people. 

“At this point, political activism and exerting our voice seems more crucial now than it ever has been before,” she said.

Tasch and her friends discuss policy issues all the time — especially those relevant to her generation, like climate change and college affordability. Tasch plans to vote in the general, but won’t have a voice in whose names are on the ballot.

“And so it's hard to see all of these candidates and to have opinions and feelings but not get to exercise my opinion,” she said. 

About two dozen other states do allow 17-year-olds to have some form of participation in primaries and caucuses. The regulations vary from state to state — some allow all 17-year-olds to vote in the primaries. Others only allow 17-year-olds who turn 18 before the general to vote. And others only allow for participation in the Democratic process, but not the Republican, even in years when the Republican candidate isn’t an incumbent. And some states allow 17-year-olds to cast a ballot in the presidential primary, while others restrict 17-year-olds to state and county primaries. 

This year — for the first time — Colorado is allowing 17-year-olds to vote in the primary if they turn 18 before the general. One state legislator has repeatedly pushed Texas to adopt a similar rule. Donna Howard, Democratic representative for Austin’s state district 48, proposed the bill in 2015, 2017 and 2019. 

“We actually had committee hearings the first two go-arounds, but did not even get a committee hearing this time around,” she said. 

The bill would have allowed 17-year-olds to vote in primaries for county and state elections, but not federal races, like the presidency. 

Howard said she’s been told that 17-year-olds aren’t mature enough to vote. She doesn’t buy that. 

“There's a lot of 17 year olds who are out there working, some of them even supporting themselves and their families,” she said. “They can actually join the military. They can actually sign up when they're 17. And I just find it ludicrous to think that they're not mature enough.”

She says her push to expand voting rights for young people is not partisan. 

“The thing I think is important to recognize here is this had real strong bipartisan support,” she said. “Lots of not only bipartisan support from legislators here at the Capitol, but also from young people representing the Young Republicans and the Young Democrats.”

But she did point to her Republican colleagues when asked why the efforts have been unsuccessful. 

“The leadership of the Elections Committee over those three legislative sessions have been Republicans,” Howard said. “There's been Republican leadership and Republican majority members of those committees. You know, I mentioned earlier that I think there are some of these folks (who) may have an issue with expanding access to voting.”

Of the five Republican members who sit on the nine-member Elections Committee, four did not respond to TPR’s request for comment on this story, and one declined to comment. The Texas House Republican Caucus also did not respond to requests for comment. 

Howard said the arguments around maturity are the only thing she’s heard expressed aloud, but that she suspects another motivation.

“So, I can't read their minds as to why. I can only suggest that seems to be what the pushback has been — that [17-year-olds] are not mature enough, or that it may mean that we'd have an increase in voting that might not be to the benefit of Republicans.”

Howard said that argument also doesn’t hold up.

“I will point out that actually it was young Republicans who indicated that they have seen studies that show that when you are 17 — when you are still in high school — when you're 17 and 18, your views are sometimes more conservative than they become when you're in your 20s,” she said.

And Howard’s bill would only allow 17-year-olds who turn 18 before the general to vote in a party primary. Young people who are still 17 on the day of the general election would not be eligible to vote.  

Slattery, a senior staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP), said the lack of movement on this bill fits in with the Texas state government’s history on voting rights. 

“I think it is of a piece with, unfortunately, how this state leadership here treats voting rights,” he said. “Which is it's either not a priority, or the priority is to silence people's voices.” 

As part of his work with TCRP, Slattery ensures that public high schools are obeying state law and offering their students the opportunity to register to vote. Through that work, he said he’s met students that are more civically engaged than some adults. 

He met one group of teenagers who had already formed a 501(c)3 — a type of nonpartisan nonprofit organization — with the purpose of increasing voter registration among young people, and that the group was considering forming a 501(c)4 — a type of nonprofit that can more actively endorse candidates and advocate for or against legislation. 

“That's not only light-years ahead of what my generation was doing at their age, but honestly, I'm not even sure that I knew what a 501(c)3 or 501(c)4 was until I was, you know, a decade older than them,” he said. 

Historically, voter turnout in Texas has been low. In the 2016 general election, less than half of eligible voters cast a ballot. Slattery said allowing people to become involved in the process at a young age increases the likelihood that they’ll stay engaged later in life. 

“By making it easier for young people to vote — and by welcoming them into the process as early in their lives as possible — it's not just a good thing for them,” he said. “It's a good thing for our entire society by making our democracy healthier in the long term.”

For Tasch, who will graduate in the spring, the upcoming general election elicits mixed feelings. 

“Now that we're actually coming up on the 2020 elections, it’s both exciting and antagonizing in a way,” she said. 

Antagonizing because she’ll choose between candidates selected through party processes that she — and hundreds of thousands of other voters — had no voice in. 

Dominic Anthony can be reached at Dominic@TPR.org and on Twitter at @_DominicAnthony.

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