Among the crowd of elected officials and political donors roaming around the JW Marriott Ballroom in Austin is a group of young adults and college students from all backgrounds, exchanging business cards and reaching out to individuals with political connections. As eloquent speeches were made, fancy drinks were poured and campaign goals were presented, the youngest group in the room listened attentively.
Catherine Wicker, state president of Texas College Democrats, and Brandon James, the San Marcos field organizer for MOVE Texas, were among the many students and young adults who spent their Saturday ensuring the needs of young voters will be met once election day comes around.
They are part of a statewide movement of students across college campuses who are mobilizing young voters in an attempt to flip a state which is expected to be a crucial battleground in the 2020 elections.
Hays County, home to Texas State University, saw the biggest surge of young voters in the 2018 elections, with five times the number of voters turning up at the polls in 2018 compared to 2014 and 2016, according to the Texas Tribune. Early voting turnout for the 2018 midterms was at 46.6%, a 25.4% increase from the 2016 early voting and a 36.5% increase from the 2014 early voting. This phenomenon was attributed in part to the significant increase in voters aged 18-25 who showed up to the polls in historic numbers.
The increased voting participation from college students helped to flip the county blue in 2018, which hadn’t voted for a Democrat since 1992.
Wicker oversees over 20 chapters across college campuses and has been working to engage students to vote locally and at the state level. She believes young voters, who are often an underrepresented community, have the power to flip Hays County and even the entire state of Texas
“Young voters of Texas can and will flip Texas,” Wicker said. “With young voters, that is what the party needs to move forward to flip this state, and so it is really crucial that we are engaging them because they care about politics. A lot of times, people say that they don’t care, that’s it’s not important but in all actuality, they do care.”
“They’re just never engaged to know how to vote, when to vote, or when and even how to register to vote in this state.”Catherine Wicker, state president for Texas College Democrats
James, who has been with MOVE Texas for a year, said there’s more to youth mobilizing than getting them registered to vote.
“We’ve talked a lot about voting being this thing that we do like it’s the end-all being,” James said. “Truthfully, voting is just the first step. Being actively engaged not just in a party but actively engaged in local politics, or working for a specific campaign, or organizing around that, is important, not just because it develops skills for young people but because also, it’s what actually engages others.”
The median age in Texas in 2018 was 34.8, showing the growing younger population and the potential impact they could have on their communities. Many politicians running for office have acknowledged the power of voters between 18 and 24, but people like Wicker believe political parties are not doing enough to engage this specific community.
“Listen to (young voters), treat them with respect when (candidates are) hiring them, making sure (candidates are) paying them if they can or not overworking them if they’re unpaid, and inviting them to the table,” Wicker said.
On Aug. 19, 2019, Hays County Judge Ruben Becerra calls a special session of the Hays County Commissioners Court to make the LBJ Student Center a permanent voting location after the original agenda item addressing this issue was pulled due to a lack of back-up items to explain and support the item.
“It was my duty, my responsibility to take the most fundamental American right and make sure it didn’t get skewed in a way that wasn’t fair and balanced.”Ruben Becerra, Hays County Judge
In February 2019, the Hays County Commissioners Court faced the threat of litigation after cutting early voting hours at the LBJ Student Center polls. Students and activist organizations threatened to sue the county, hours and the number of days the polls were available were extended.
Becerra was not the county judge at the time of the incident.
“It was plain to see that the access to the voting boxes on campus were deliberately being pulled to squash the voice of the Bobcat,” Becerra said. “And not until the county was threatened with a lawsuit did they take corrective action. Corrective action that should have never been corrected.”
The 2019 elections will also be the first test-drive for the Hays County’s new voting machines, which were asked for following lost votes in the 2017 election. The new hybrid machines, the Hart InterCivic Verity Duo, will allow voters to submit both an electronic and paper record.
These new machines replaced the county’s aging machines, bought in 2004.