Engaging Others: Voter Registration in Texas
With the midterm elections in less than a week, I wanted to share the story of a friend working to maintain our democracy. Regardless of what side of the political spectrum you may be on, I think we can all agree that as citizens, we have an obligation to be active players in shaping our government. One way we can do that is by voting. Over the past year or so, Anthony has been a tireless advocate for encouraging people in Texas and the rest of the United States to vote. Here is his story:
"On my 18th birthday in July 2017, I remember my older sister calling to wish me a happy birthday and telling me to be sure to register to vote. I didn’t think much of it at the time; after all, it wasn’t an election year, and I was going to move to a new address soon in college anyways. Oh, how times have changed. In 15 months, I have become one of the most fervent people at the University of Texas on the issue of voter apathy. I’ve spoken to thousands of my fellow students by giving classroom presentations, calling out to them on Speedway (the main thoroughfare at UT), and butting into strangers’ conversations about politics. Although the statistics have not yet been released, I estimate that I have personally registered at least 400 new voters or address changes and am one of the most prolific registrars in Travis County, Texas. This all in spite of the fact that, statistically speaking, I should be among the least civically engaged members of society. As a young Asian-American male college student studying a STEM field, I check off every box on the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement’s data on which types of people vote at the worst rates. What changed me?
I was browsing the internet last December when I stumbled upon data stating that Texas ranks 48th in voter turnout and that over 80% of UT students didn’t vote in the last midterm election, both of which shocked me. At that point, I was intrigued by Beto O’Rourke’s United States Senate campaign and wanted to help more students learn about him or at least gain more interest in midterm elections, which typically suffer from abysmal turnout. I was also interested in helping people who don’t vote in midterm elections, or not at all, get interested in voting. The best way I found to do that was to become a Volunteer Deputy Registrar (VDR).
As far as I know, VDRs are a concept unique to Texas. VDRs are essentially people who can help voters get registered. Voter registration in Texas is a cumbersome process that involves printing out a form and mailing it in with correct postage to an address that is different for each of Texas’s 254 counties. VDRs help to expedite the process by posting themselves in high-traffic locations, such as at high schools, and colleges and by providing the paper forms and mailing the forms in for processing so that the citizens don’t have to. To become a VDR, you have to go through a short training. Apparently, it was only offered on one Tuesday night and one Saturday morning each month at the Travis County Tax Office, a location not convenient for me, as a car-less college student. Then, one of my friends told me about a training that was happening on campus, so I excitedly rushed to get deputized and start registering voters in time for the primaries in March. There, I met the VDR trainer, Kassie. Kassie is a current PhD student at UT and invited me to join a campus organization that she coordinates, TX Votes. I can easily say that joining TX Votes is one of the best decisions I have ever made.
TX Votes is a nonpartisan civic engagement organization, but it is so much more than that to me. We are a family of a few dozen passionate VDRs who all really care about getting young people interested in voting. Once I became surrounded by like-minded people, it was so easy to be passionate about an issue when I knew I wasn’t alone in believing in it. With my new friends, I’ve met politicians, helped a group effort that resulted in thousands of Longhorns registering to vote, and ate a ridiculous amount of free food. For the sake of comparison, in 2014, the last midterm election year, I didn’t even know an election was happening. This year, I feel joy like nothing else when I dress up in an Uncle Sam costume and scream at passersby on Speedway asking if they’re registered to vote. In fact, I can say with a high degree of confidence that I have said “Are you registered to vote” more times than I have said “I love you” in my life. With that, I had been converted into that annoying friend who never shuts up about politics.
Since the voter registration deadline passed on October 9, I have truly experienced withdrawal from registering voters. I miss it a lot. The most rewarding registrations were convincing fellow Asian guys in STEM to register, but the best of all was convincing a 42-year-old mom of a friend who has never voted before to register. Now that the busy season is over, it’s almost time for Election Day and analyzing the turnout this year. I will be surprised if turnout is below 30% (up from 18%) among UT students. For example, I watched Beto speak last September in a classroom that holds 500 people; I think a maximum of 50 people were there. This January, I went to a VERY late-night town hall on a Sunday night to see Beto again at Kerbey Lane Cafe, and the restaurant was packed with at least 100 supporters to see him speak at 1:30 AM. This month, Beto drew thousands of students to his rally at UT, which had to be relocated due to overwhelming attendance. There is a lot of excitement for a race in Texas that actually appears to be competitive, and I have high hopes that the youth vote won’t disappoint me this year.
In Texas, we have the privilege of early voting, and I will be voting at 7 AM on Monday, October 23, the first day of early voting. I cannot wait, and make sure you vote, and tell everybody you know to do so too!"
A big thanks to Anthony for taking the time to share his story!
Photo is of the Pittsburgh skyline from Mt. Washington