EL PASO – Like millennials elsewhere, young El Pasoans are distinguished by their historic low levels of civic and electoral participation. But a group of local political leaders and others have spent the last year in an aggressive campaign inside high school classrooms and auditoriums to help sign up 18-year-olds and get them to cast a ballot November 8.
Spearheaded by the office of State Sen. José Rodriguez, the Student Voter Initiative deployed volunteers to 26 high schools in nine school districts over the last 11 months to talk to about 7,000 teenagers about the political process, civic engagement and the importance of voting.
As a result of the high school campaign, 650 El Paso area students age 18 years and older are now registered to vote, according to Samantha Romero, office coordinator for Sen. Rodriguez
Claudia Yoli, Director of Community Affairs for Sen. Rodriguez, said of the initiative: “We wanted to let students know that Texas overall has a very low voter participation rate and,in our community, it can go as low as 10 percent during non presidential elections, so we want students to know that and change it.”
According to VoteTexas.gov, during the 2012 presidential election, there were 383, 737 registered voters In El Paso, County, and out of those only 171,070, or 44.58 percent actually voted.
At the national level, Pew Research Center data shows that as April 2016 an estimated 69.2 million millennials (people between the ages of 18 – 35) were voting age U.S. citizens. During the 2012 presidential election, only 46 percent of eligible millennials actually voted.
Sofia Perez, 18, a high school senior and member of the Youth Advisory Committee said she is well aware of the significance that the student vote can have on the outcome of an election, and that is “why the youth should be voting.”
The Student Voter Initiative also included participation by various local schools and organizations including UTEP, EPCC, League of Women Voters and the support of four local elected officials and the El Paso County Elections Department.
During the visits to the high schools, volunteers led non-partisan discussions about the right to vote, the impact voting has on young students lives and also encouraged them to register to vote.
“We knew that for the Student Voter Initiative (SVI) to be an effective project it would have to be more about voter education than voter registration,” Yoli said.
Added Sen. Rodriguez: “We want to create a culture of keep on voting for the rest of their lives because that’s how we create change in this country.”
Last year the group tested the youth voting project in Ysleta Independent School District, registering up to 2,500 students after reaching out to almost 4,000 within the Senate District and its rural area which includes Marfa, Presidio and Fort Davis.
Yoli said that although there are no exact numbers of how many actually voted in 2015, “we do know that in Ysleta there was a 12 percent increase of 18 to 19-year-olds coming out to vote in recent elections, which for our purposes is very encouraging.”
According a section of the Texas election code, “each principal of a public or private high school or the principal’s designee shall serve as a deputy registrar for the county in which the school is located.”
In addition, the law says, “a high school deputy registrar may distribute registration application forms at least twice per school year, to each student who is or will be 18 years of age or older during that year.”
The Student Voter Initiative helped local schools complete that mission. “For us it’s a great opportunity to talk to high school seniors about the importance of voting and the democratic process,” Yoli said.