Voter groups are scrambling to figure out how to continue registering young people during the COVID-19 pandemic, since Texas is among a minority of states that don't allow online voter registration.
More than 1 million young people in Texas have registered to vote since the last presidential election. This is partly because young voters have been paying closer attention to politics during the Trump administration. Voting groups say it's also largely due to a concerted effort among several groups working to reach out to them.
Charlie Bonner, a spokesperson with MOVE Texas, said his group had been organizing volunteers on college campuses across the state.
“Most of MOVE’s work happens on campus, in-person, voter by voter, friends and neighbors talking to each other,” he said.
Some of the biggest spikes in voter registration among people under 30 happened right at the beginning of the year, he said.
And then, the coronavirus happened.
Campuses shut down. Person-to-person contact was outlawed.
Within a matter of days, Bonner said, the program came to a halt.
“It’s really been a shock to the momentum that we were seeing,” he said. “We were really building on the youth voter turnout momentum.”
During the midterm election in 2018, turnout among Texans under 30 tripled compared to the previous midterm election. Since then, money has been flowing to youth voter groups in an effort to keep things going.
The Texas Youth Power Alliance – which includes groups like Jolt, Texas Rising and MOVE Texas – set a goal of registering 300,000 new voters in the state by the presidential election in November.
But now that their main strategy for reaching out to young voters is potentially unsafe, they are switching things up.
Rae Martinez, director of Texas Rising, said the group has been reaching out to young people online and by phone, instead of in person.
“The way to do that is really by reaching out to them on social media platforms, calling young people and talking to them about why it’s important to get involved,” Martinez said, “as well as texting people, which has been super beneficial for our program, because young people respond very well to text messages.”
Once volunteers convince young people to register, groups say, they also have to help some of them clear the hurdle of printing out a registration form, filling it out and mailing it in.
Bonner said that’s not easy for a lot of young people to do right now.
“A ton of young people – many of whom have been displaced as college campuses have closed – don’t have access to a printer; many don’t have access to the internet right now,” he said. “So this is really creating a massive barrier.”
Voter registration groups are working to problem-solve for that, too.
Martinez said Texas Rising is trying to figure out how to get addresses of people who need voter registration forms so it can send them printed forms.
“We will be working with like maybe a mail firm – where we can mail them a voter registration form with pre-paid postage,” Martinez said. “So everything on that front is covered. All they will have to worry about is physically taking that piece of mail and putting it in the mailbox.”
The reason these groups have to get creative is because one obvious solution is just not available in Texas: online voter registration.
“We are trying to mobilize a digital generation and Texas has to modernize their approach to civic engagement,” said Antonio Arellano, the interim executive director of Jolt, which is reaching out to young voters of color in Texas.
Arellano said the combination of stay-at-home orders and not having the option to register online infringes on people’s voting rights. The state needs to move to online voter registration now more than ever, he said.
“Without doing that, we are not only jeopardizing our democracy, but really disenfranchising an entirely new generation of young voters,” Arellano said.
The Texas Secretary of State recently sent out an advisory suggesting local election officials make postage-paid registration applications available to voters. It said they could provide that option from either their own offices or by directing voters to a third-party website called Register2vote.org, which has a remote printing option.
Bonner said that's not enough.
"What this pandemic has done has really shined a spotlight on the inequalities in our system," he said. "We have to do more to increase that access and make sure that it’s equitable across the entire system. So, what Texas really needs is a full online voter registration system.”
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