A voting rights challenge from young Texans to Gov. Abbott and the Legislature

By: Lauren Cebulske and Jocelyne Torres

Each fall, just before the big UT-OU football game in early October, Gov. Greg Abbott will take to his Twitter account to argue Texas is better than Oklahoma.

But when it comes to making it easier to vote, Gov. Abbott and the Texas Legislature are not only letting Oklahoma beat us, they’re also refusing to even get on the field.

Oklahoma in 2015 approved online voter registration, implementing the first phase in 2018. When it is fully phased in, our neighbors to the north will be the 38th state (plus the District of Columbia) to have online registration, leaving behind Texas and a shrinking minority of states whose registration procedures are still stuck in the 20th Century.

To be clear, implementing online voter registration in Texas wouldn’t instantly solve the state’s historically low rate of voter participation. But it would be a common-sense step to make the voting process easier and more accessible, especially for young people like us who are just now becoming old enough to be eligible to vote.

Young people are a growing part of an electorate that truly began flexing its muscle in the recent midterm elections, with participation among voters under the age of 30 surging across the country and in Texas. It’s a trend that we should encourage, not resist, and passing the right legislation is just one way to do it.

The Legislature not only has an online voter registration proposal before it — HB 361 by state Rep. Celia Israel — but also other bills that would encourage participation by young Texans.

HB 375 by state Rep. Gina Hinojosa, for example, would require counties to place polling locations on college and university campuses with more than 10,000 enrolled students. It makes sense to put voting locations near where thousands of eligible voters live and spend their days. It would be especially helpful for many students who don’t have cars or have limited access to other transportation to off-campus locations.

HB 1950 by state Rep. Erin Zwiener would add college- and university-issued identifications to the list of accepted forms of voter ID. Under current law, voters can use the ID from their permits for carrying a concealed gun, but students can’t use their college IDs. The only reason that makes sense is if you purposely want to make it harder for students to vote.

Passing these bills would send a clear message that state leaders do, in fact, want everyone in this state to have a voice at election time.

But here’s what we mean when we say Gov. Abbott refuses even to get on the field. He and state legislators have been presented with similar proposals in multiple legislative sessions, to no avail.

In fact, the only significant voting rights bill passed by the Legislature in recent years was one designed to restrict participation — a 2011 voter ID law that purposefully excluded university-issued IDs. It has also had a fraught history in federal court, where the law was initially blocked because of its discriminatory effect against African-Americans and Latinos.

The governor and the Legislature have a choice before them this year. They can approve these common-sense bills and put our state on a path toward a voter turnout rate we can all be proud of. Or they can choose to, once again, ignore these bills and let another opportunity pass us by.

When this legislative session ends in May, will it be known for all the good that was done to improve voter participation? Or will it be remembered for Gov. Abbott’s insistence on confirming Secretary of State David Whitley, who pushed a bogus “illegal voter” claim that endangered the rights of thousands of eligible voters? Or for Senate Bill 9, which is pending at the Legislature, and is perhaps the worst voter suppression proposal in the country this year?

We challenge the governor and the Legislature to make the right choice.

State leaders like to talk a big game about how every voter should have a voice. It’s past time for them to prove it.

Lauren Cebulske attends the University of Texas at Austin and Jocelyne Torres attends the University of Houston-Downtown. They are student leaders for Texas Rising.