MOVE Texas courts young voters as midterms draw near


When youth engagement group MOVE Texas first formed at the University of Texas at San Antonio in 2013, organizers had to resort to “carnival-like” methods to draw attention to their cause.

They wore cardboard robot costumes and 1950s-style banana suits and drove around campus in golf carts carrying stacks of blank voter registration cards, said Alexbirel, the group’s advocacy director.

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But this week, as the group wooed UTSA students for National Voter Registration Day, all they needed was a few boxes of Domino’s pizzas and a supply of frozen pop treats.

“We’re trying to provide young people with a means to practice democracy,” Birnel said. “We have no places where we can practice democracy. We’re all bowling alone trying to form a political identity when the young electorate is ready to take center stage.”

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It was one of dozens of similar registration drives taking place Tuesday at Texas colleges and universities as advocacy groups recruited young people to vote in this fall’s elections.

Though there are an estimated 2.8 million 18- to 24-year-olds in Texas, young people are a notoriously low voter turnout in a state that already has one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the country. But organizations like MOVE and NextGen America are committed to changing that — and they say Texas’ newest voters could help turn the state blue this fall.

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Cade McKnight sits with Deepika Chilukuri and Praveena Munnam and helps them register to vote.  McKnight worked with NextGen Texas to register students to vote with the UTSA on National Voter Registration Day.

Cade McKnight sits with Deepika Chilukuri and Praveena Munnam and helps them register to vote. McKnight worked with NextGen Texas to register students to vote with the UTSA on National Voter Registration Day.

Jessica Phelps / Jessica Phelps

“As a group we’re not as engaged as we should be just because we’re young and feel like our voice either doesn’t carry weight or we just don’t have a clue how to get out there and register and vote,” said Ike Ogbogu, a 23-year-old senior at the University of Houston who helped host an on-campus “Speed ​​Dating for Democracy” event. “We don’t know the whole process. So I think it’s important for me to support NextGen America, which helps students actually get out there and vote.”

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It was the first time NextGen had a presence at National Voter Registration Day in Texas as they have a lofty goal of 40,000 registrations by October 11, the deadline for submitting an application. They offered a range of snacks, stickers and branded merchandise to students who filled out the forms or committed to vote. Some stopped by just for the treats, while others asked for help updating their address or finding out who’s on the ballot.

The increased effort to reach young voters comes in an election cycle that has already exceeded expectations. For months Republicans predicted a red wave across the country, but the field is muddy after a series of mass shootings and the fall of Roe v. Wade has unleashed a tide of left-leaning activism.

On Tuesday, the good government group Common Cause announced a Stories of Democracy initiative that will offer $200 grants to young people of color to submit their stories about elections and social justice.

Young people tend to choose bluer than older generations, according to data collected by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. In Texas, 62 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds voted for Democratic President Joe Biden in 2020; 35 percent voted for former President Donald Trump, a Republican.

That’s not to say Republicans aren’t courting young voters: Last weekend, hundreds of young conservatives attended a “Texas Youth Summit” in The Woodlands, and US Rep. Dan Crenshaw will host another GOP youth event early next month host in Houston.

Voter turnout among young voters in Texas, while still low, has increased steadily in recent election cycles. About 1.8 million 18- to 29-year-olds cast their ballots in the 2020 general election, according to a post-election analysis by Republican strategist Derek Ryan.

In the election two years ago – when turnout was generally lower, typical of midterm races – 1.1 million young Texans voted. In the 2016 presidential election, it was around 1.2 million, according to Ryan’s report.

Texas has more than 17.5 million registered voters.

Every statewide official is on the ballot in Texas this fall, including Gov. Greg Abbott, who is up against Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke, a former congressman from El Paso. O’Rourke, who earned national recognition for his 2018 challenge against US Senator Ted Cruz, was a collectible figure for young Texans.

Earlier this year, O’Rourke hosted a series of town halls aimed at young people, and on Wednesday he announced a 14-stop college tour in the days leading up to the voter registration deadline.

“It’s young leaders across the state who are bringing about change in Texas right now,” O’Rourke said in a statement.

At the UTSA event, MOVE organizers offered similar pitches to young people who passed their table. They asked the students to sign a pledge, apparently written to lure Gen Zers: “You better believe, I pledge to be a voter in Texas. And you can bet I will tell my friends and family to do the same because our democracy is at stake!”

Birnel, the group’s advocacy director, scoffed at the assumption that young voters are disinterested or uninterested in politics. He pointed to youth-led lobbying across the country, including the Sunrise movement to stop climate change and growing union efforts at companies like Amazon and Starbucks.

Cade McKnight wears voting socks while working with NextGen Texas to register students for registration with the UTSA on National Voter Registration Day.

Cade McKnight wears voting socks while working with NextGen Texas to register students for registration with the UTSA on National Voter Registration Day.

Jessica Phelps / Jessica Phelps

Texas’ lack of automated or online voter registration is a major deterrent to young people, he said, and unnecessarily complicates the democratic process.

“I shy away from the concept of youth voter apathy without fully unpacking how the system is set up,” Birnel said.

Amber Williams, an 18-year-old neuroscience student at UTSA, registered to vote in another MOVE campaign two weeks ago. But she walked by the table again on Tuesday, reaffirming her commitment to making her voice heard in November. Abbott is “terrible,” and Texas should elect leaders who support abortion rights, she said.

“A lot of people are complaining, but are they really going to change anything?” she said.

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