Voters wait in line to cast their votes at the UNT Gateway Center

Voters wait in line to cast their votes at the University of North Texas Gateway Center in November 2016.

Denton-area schools seem to be doing a better job of following state voter registration laws than the rest of the state, according to a recent study from a Texas civil rights group.

A decades-old law requires public and private high school principals to hand out voter registration forms to eligible students at least twice a year. The first step in that process would be to request those forms from the Texas Secretary of State’s Office, but some schools haven’t made it that far.

A July study from the Texas Civil Rights Project found only a third of high schools across the state had requested registration forms from the secretary of state between October 2016 and February 2018. The number is up from 14 percent from the previous year’s report, but it still means an estimated 183,000 young voters could be left off the rolls.

“Even though compliance has improved since our last report, it could hardly have been more dismal to begin with, and compliance remains abysmal,” the report said.

At the local level, four public schools in the area — Krum, Lake Dallas, Little Elm and Pilot Point — don’t have requests on file with the state office, according to a map that was included in the TCRP report.

Krum school district public information officer Taylor Poston pushed back on the report’s findings, saying the district hands out printed forms each semester during government classes and provides a link in the weekly student newsletter so students can print online forms.

The map shows that none of the area charter schools, mostly situated around Lewisville, has requested forms. Meanwhile, no area private schools are even listed.

The TCRP report found that many school principals are confused when it comes to complying with high school voter laws and often reach out to the state office for clarification. Researchers recommended the state automatically send out registration forms instead of making each school ask. They also suggested a more stringent enforcement plan.

Texas Secretary of State Rolando Pablos sent a statement to the Texas Observer saying his office had put together several campaigns over the last year to boost compliance.

“We have taken a number of steps to remove barriers for principals, encourage community involvement, and implement accountability measures to the maximum extent allowed under the current law,” the statement read.

The TCRP report does come with some caveats.

For instance, it only tracks schools that requested forms through the state office, even though the law allows schools to alternatively request registration forms from county elections offices. Frank Phillips, the Denton County elections administrator, said his office does occasionally send out forms to area schools but doesn’t track which schools put in requests.

Some schools are also left off the report’s map, like Braswell High School and Liberty Christian School.

Like Krum, Liberty Christian spokeswoman Vivian Nichols confirmed the school does hand out registration forms during government and economics classes. The campus was one of only two private schools in the state that confirmed their registration efforts with the Texas Civil Rights Project.

Outside of the classroom, local organizations are ramping up efforts to increase voter registration.

Paula Paschal, the training coordinator at the county elections office, visited Lewisville High School last year to talk about the election process and how to become a student poll worker. She’s planning four similar classes in September that are open to any Denton County high schooler.

Jennifer Collins, the vice president of legislative action for the Denton Community Council of Parent Teacher Associations, said the group registered 38 people and handed out nonpartisan voter information at Guyer High School on Monday. The organization is planning another registration event at 6:30 p.m. Monday at the Braswell High Back-to-School Bash.

“I think there’s an interest building in young people to get involved in elections, but I think they’re intimidated and scared to ask for basic information,” Collins said.

Providing that basic information could be having an impact when it comes to voter registration numbers in Denton County.

According to the county elections office, 10,891 Denton County high school students registered to vote between October 2016 and February 2018. In that same period, more than 17,500 kids turned 18 in public schools alone. If every registered voter attended a public high school, that would mean about 62 percent of that population signed up to vote.

But registering to vote doesn’t always translate to a completed ballot at the polls.

Outside of the 2016 presidential election that brought out 64 percent of the electorate, voter turnout remains paltry in Denton County. In 2017, the May and November elections saw a 9.6 percent and 4.4 percent turnout, respectively. The March 2018 primaries eked out a few more voters but remained relatively low at 16.6 percent.

Still, educators say it’s critical to get young people to vote in elections as soon as they’re eligible. If people vote in that first election after their 18th birthday, research shows they are more likely to become a lifelong voter.

“What we think our city, our county, our state and our country needs is representation from everyone to give their feedback and weigh in on what the issues are,” Denton ISD Superintendent Jamie Wilson said. “The only way that happens is to get people started.”

For more information about voting in Denton, go to www.votedenton.com.

CAITLYN JONES can be reached at 940-566-6862 and via Twitter at @CjonesDRC.

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