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Texas Has The Nation's Worst Voter Turnout, And Young Texans Lead The Way

Tuesday’s the last day to register to vote in Texas, and a record’s already been set: More than 15.5 million Texans are eligible to vote, with registration continuing to climb. But being able to vote and actually pulling the lever are not the same thing. 

That frustrates Dr. Cindy Castaneda, who teaches government in Dallas at Eastfield College. 

“Young people, your group here, tends to be the lowest with voter turnout. Really, really low," she told students in a class today.

Then she shared some telling statistics:

• In the last Texas election there were more young eligible voters than seniors. But far more seniors actually voted.
Turnout in midterm elections is typically low. But the last midterm, in 2014, had the worst national turnout ever measured, according to the Pew Research Center. And that’s also when Texas ranked dead last.

Castaneda believes Austin lawmakers should help boost turnout among young voters.  

“Why don’t we allow students to vote with their government-issued student IDs? Dallas County Community College, after all, is a governmental entity," Castaneda said. "Other states allow students to vote with just their student ID. We could take policies on in Texas, such as in the state of Oregon, which mails ballots to eligible voters, which is a great way to increase voter turnout.”

Increasing turnout is part of today’s lesson. Karen Bassett from the League of Women Voters visited the class, carrying voter registration cards and urging students to pledge to vote via an online app.

“I don’t care if you’re a Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Green party, whatever,” Bassett said. “I don’t care where you stand on an issue — pro, con. I have one issue, and that’s that I would like for you to vote.”

Firing up these kids to vote drives Bassett. A century ago, she couldn’t have voted. No woman in this country could.

Half a century ago, literacy tests and poll taxes kept many people of color from voting. The 1965 Voting Rights Act helped change that.

But since then, turnout among young voters has been sliding. The Pew study reports that when Baby Boomers were between 18 and 24 years old, their turnout was 26 percent. Millennials at that age only turned out at 20 percent.

Hunter Whitaker, a 19-year-old student at Eastfield, has no plans to vote this November.

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Hunter Whitaker doesn't vote. He's like 80 percent of young voters in the last Texas midterm election.

“I'm not really interested in the ballots of people, I don't know,” he said.

No candidates grab Hunter, though younger ones might have a better chance, especially if they shared his interests, which includes education and marijuana legalization, he said.

Hunter is about the only confessed non-voter in Castaneda’s class. Anesa Koldzic, 18, is looking forward to voting for the first time.

But she hasn’t found a candidate who talks about her concerns, either, which include "education rights" and health care reform.

"Just ways it make it easier on us, I guess.”

Koldzic has heard the excuses from non-voters who say they don’t know the issues, don’t feel represented and that their vote doesn’t matter.

She dismisses them. Voting for the first time is a big deal.

“It does make a change, even if your outcome wasn’t what you wanted,” she said.

Karen Bassett wants to reach more young voters like Koldzic, but she’s worried.

“I think that we are losing a generation. This generation has not been educated about civics and that’s not acceptable to me," Bassett said. "I’m the mother to two Millennials, and I want them to be able to participate so that they can be part of what’s coming next.”  

Coming next is the Texas voter registration deadline on Tuesday, and then early voting, which starts Oct. 22.   

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.