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Advocates Say Texas Wants To Curb College Students' Political Power

NOEL KING, HOST:

Lawmakers in Texas have made it harder for college students to vote. They banned temporary voting locations which are often found on college campuses. Voting rights groups say this is a deliberate effort to undermine the growing political power of young voters.

Here's Ashley Lopez from member station KUT in Austin.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Emily Clark is a junior at the University of Texas at Austin. It's early on in the fall semester and she's helping some of her fellow students register to vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: For No. 5, what do we put for?

EMILY CLARK: Oh, it's optional. You don't need to put anything there.

LOPEZ: Clark is working with MOVE Texas, a statewide group working to get young people civically engaged. Clark says getting college students registered to vote isn't always easy because they are largely first-time voters, which means there's a lot they don't know.

CLARK: A lot of them actually think that if they don't have a driver's license from Texas, they can't register to vote here. But that's not true because as long as you have the last four of your social, you can.

LOPEZ: Registering young voters tends to fall on groups like this. That's because campaigns have seen young voters as historically bad investments - and especially in Texas. In 2014, for example, just 8% of Texans under 30 voted. But things have started to change. In the last midterm election, turnout in the same group tripled compared to 2014.

Rae Martinez, who works for a youth voter engagement effort called Texas Rising, says college students in particular are becoming more interested in politics.

RAE MARTINEZ: There's a lot of bad stuff that's happening right now. I think that people on campus that we're encountering, you know, want to do something. I know that they want to have a say in the political process, and we're seeing just more enthusiasm on campus in general.

LOPEZ: And that spike in participation among young voters is partly why 2018 was one of the closest and most competitive midterm elections in Texas in decades. But now, voting groups say a new law in Texas has made it harder for college students to vote. State lawmakers recently passed House Bill 1888, which outlaws temporary voting locations that don't serve as a full-time polling place during early voting.

The bill's sponsor, Republican State Representative Greg Bonnen, said those sites were being misused in the state.

GREG BONNEN: Some subdivisions of the state have abused this flexibility and targeted desirable voting populations at the exclusion of others.

LOPEZ: Bonnen says this was becoming a common practice in school bond elections. For example, he says election officials were putting these pop-up polling places in schools where teachers and parents were more likely to vote for bonds. But the bill goes farther than just those hyper-local elections. Now, local election officials are banned from using these temporary sites for any election, says James Slattery, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project.

JAMES SLATTERY: Counties in the state have limited resources, but they want to be able to spread those resources, so that way as many people could vote as possible.

LOPEZ: Now, polling places in Texas have to be open every day of early voting, which Slattery says is beyond the resources of most counties. Many election officials use these temporary sites to serve certain communities, like students and the elderly, with their limited funds. State Representative Greg Bonnen has argued the bill was not written to stop local officials from putting polling places in those communities.

BONNEN: It just says that it would have to be kept open throughout the course of the election to provide an equal opportunity and consistency for everyone who wishes to go and cast a vote.

LOPEZ: But strained resources did lead to polling location closures this past November. Recently, an elderly man who lost a polling site in his retirement community in Austin joined two youth voting groups to sue the state over HB 1888.

Mayra Mendoza is with Texas Young Democrats, which is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. She says she thinks this is actually all about the 2020 presidential election.

MAYRA MENDOZA: I have no doubt that it has everything to do with a legitimate fear that we will replicate such a massive young turnout.

LOPEZ: According to her group's lawsuit, three different college campuses in Austin have lost polling locations that were open in 2018. The plaintiffs say they just want to make sure those sites are open this year. For NPR News, I'm Ashley Lopez in Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.