Early voting is underway and by all accounts, there will be a surge in voter turnout. Those voters have a record number of candidates in local and statewide races to choose from.
In a healthy democratic republic, this would be considered a good thing. But instead of applauding the situation and supporting civic engagement, some in state leadership, including Attorney General Ken Paxton and the far-right “conservatives” behind Empower Texans, seem to fear the electorate.
Apparently alarmed that teachers are teaching and that students are learning civics and are inspired to vote, Empower Texans, a conservative political organization, and elected officials like Paxton are trying to chill schools’ educational activities.
Paxton recently issued an opinion stating that "[a]bsent an educational purpose in providing students transportation to the polling locations, a court would likely conclude that the transportation serves no public purpose of the school district." In addition to the non-binding opinion, he's sending "cease and desist" letters to school districts that encourage voting. Meanwhile, Empower Texans is sending letters to teachers, trolling for “whistleblowers” in hopes of finding some semblance of impropriety.
Obviously, using public resources for partisan purposes is illegal. However, promoting civic engagement by making voter registration available or discussing current affairs not only serves a public purpose, it's a statutory requirement for our school districts. In fact, Section 13.046(a) of the Texas Election Code requires every high school principal to designate a voter registrar. Unfortunately, this statute has been largely unenforced and ignored. Taking students and teachers to actually engage in their civic duty — casting a vote — seems a logical extension of registering eligible students and teaching them the importance of voting in a representative democracy.
Thankfully, opinion letters from the attorney general have no legal weight, and teachers have responded to Empower Texas' attempt at intimidation with a #blowingthewhistle campaign on social media, highlighting their work educating students. It's shameful that this group and the AG would attempt to undermine our educational institutions and attack teachers for doing their jobs. I’m proud of the current and retired teachers and school officials who are fighting back.
Considering Texas' record of Voting Rights Act violations and voter suppression, state leaders should tread carefully. Frankly, instead of potentially further placing the state in legal jeopardy, one would think they would do everything in their power to increase the abysmal voter numbers in Texas, especially by voters under the age of 25. Alarmingly, six federal rulings since 2011 have found Texas guilty of intentional voter discrimination — a difficult standard to prove even once, let alone six times! Yet, perhaps seeing their window for holding power closing, the Republican-dominated Texas Legislature continues to suppress the vote. Case in point, during last summer’s special session, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 5, which will have the effect of reducing voting by mail-in ballot. The Legislature also repealed straight-ticket voting, likely in response to electoral shifts in Dallas, Harris and Bexar counties.
For too long, elected officials like Paxton, and political organizations like Empower Texans, funded by a handful of wealthy extremists, have used a strategy of campaign contributions, unlawfully gerrymandered districts, discriminatory and often unconstitutional legislation, and low voter turnout to gain political power.
The last might be changing. Texas is not a partisan state; it's a non-voting state. While more than 4.2 million Texans voted in the 2016 presidential primary races — the most in our state's history — we had one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the country, with only 30 percent of registered voters casting ballots.
My office has been doing everything in its power to encourage civic engagement and educate our youth about the importance and responsibility of voting. Many other legislators and organizations are working on similar efforts. If our educators are doing their jobs in helping young voters register, and setting the example themselves, that is something to be applauded, not attacked.
I support school officials and teachers who encourage their eligible students to vote. The law is on your side. Don't be intimidated. Exercise your constitutional right: vote and participate in our democracy!