The Obscure Law That’s Meant to Get High School Students Voting

Secondary school principals are required to pass out registration forms twice a year – but that doesn’t always get done.

By Alexandra HartJune 10, 2016 11:06 am| ,

Voter turnout in Texas is among the lowest in the country. Youth voter turnout is its own beast, the fuel of many a think piece and campaign strategy – and remember Rock the Vote?

But there’s a little-known law on the books in Texas to help boost registration among the youngest of eligible voters. It’s an unusual law, and only North Carolina has something similar. It requires schools to have deputy registrars, typically the school’s principals. They’re supposed to distribute voter registration applications to students who will be old enough to vote, but that doesn’t always happen.

Alicia Pierce with the Texas Attorney General’s office says that the law requires school principals pass out voter registration cards to students who will be old enough to vote, twice a year. But with so many high schools in the state, it’s impossible to keep track of who is doing it and who isn’t.

“There’s more than 3,000 high schools in Texas, so that’s a lot of schools, and each principal has a lot of obligations that are on their plate,” Pierce says. “We send a letter to them twice a year to remind them in order to tell them, “This is your obligation, this is what the law says you need to do.”

And while the law is there and is supposed to be followed, there’s no way to enforce it.

“The law allows our office to create rules about how to do it, but there’s no enforcement power and there’s no penalty for not participating,” Pierce says. “People are always surprised and they say, ‘Well it’s the law,’ but there are a lot of laws that are like this.”

There are, however, potential criminal penalties for taking up the registrations and not submitting them.

“What the law actually says is that if you’re a principal and you take the registration and don’t turn it in, then that is a possible misdemeanor, or higher level criminal action if you did it on purpose.”

But rather than trying to force schools to comply, Pierce says that the office is trying to educate principals of the program and inform them of their duties.

“We’re trying to take a carrot instead of a stick approach,” she says. “In addition to sending letters, and continuing to improve those letters and how we get those letters to them, the Secretary next week is speaking at the Texas Association of Secondary School Principals, we’re having a booth there – we’re trying to engage principals on their level. Because we know that its not their intent to not fulfill their duty, but we want to make sure they’re aware of it.”

Listen to the full interview in the audio player above.