Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Zach Foust

Boosting student turnout at UT

Cool story.

Between 2013 and 2016, Texas eliminated more than 400 polling locations, the largest drop in any state during that time. In 2013, after years of litigation, it implemented a strict voter ID law. The law, which lists seven kinds of acceptable IDs, became infamous for its brazenly partisan implications—handgun licenses are okay, for example, while student IDs are not.

All of which makes the following statistic so surprising: at the University of Texas at Austin, the state’s flagship university, undergraduate turnout increased from almost 39 percent to 53 percent between 2012 and 2016. Over that same time period, national youth turnout stayed roughly constant. The National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement at Tufts University, which calculates campus voting rates, has not yet released numbers for last year’s midterms. But at UT Austin’s on-campus polling locations, the number of early ballots cast was more than three times higher than it was in 2014. (Travis County only provides polling site specific data for early voting.)

[…]

On August 5, 2015, a federal appeals court ruled that Texas’s voter ID law violated the Voting Rights Act. The state’s attorney general vowed to enforce it anyway.

Later that month, a friendly and fast-talking former journalist named Kassie Phebillo arrived in Austin to begin a PhD in political communications at the University of Texas. To support herself financially, she took a job overseeing TX Votes, the nonpartisan organization charged by the university with increasing turnout. At the time, the group barely existed. It had just one returning member, and both of Phebillo’s would-be supervisors had left the school before she even showed up.

Still, Phebillo was drawn to the opportunity to learn more about her field and to mentor students. “I’m a first-gen college student,” she said. “Having those relationships changed my life, and so I try to do that for others.” She sat down with the sole returning TX Votes member—then senior Zach Foust—and began discussing how to restructure the group. They studied how other schools worked to get out the vote and found themselves particularly interested in colleges where students partnered with diverse groups to boost registration and turnout. The two decided to establish a civic engagement alliance and began recruiting a host of student clubs, political and nonpolitical alike, to come on board. By the end of the 2015–16 school year, a small but eclectic group of campus organizations had joined—from the Longhorn League of United Latin American Citizens to the chess club.

Phebillo and Foust asked that clubs in the alliance have one member become a volunteer deputy registrar, part of a broader strategy to create a network of students who could register voters across campus. To accomplish that, Phebillo brought county officials to campus to hold registrar training sessions and asked TX Votes members to bring their friends. Like any good college event planner, they provided free pizza to attract a bigger audience. The events were popular. Between September 2015 and the 2016 election, TX Votes helped train well over 100 volunteer deputy registrars. Together, they registered more than 17,000 voters.

I met Phebillo at UT Austin in early July 2019, in the middle of one of the university’s many freshman orientation sessions. She gave me a partial tour of campus. Inside the offices of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life, she showed me a shelf stocked with national turnout awards and trophies won by TX Votes. One award was for having the most improved undergraduate turnout rate of any college in the country.

Later, I joined Phebillo at the student activities fair, where representatives of TX Votes were trying to recruit new members. Rising sophomore Janae Steggall was especially busy, hustling for the attention of what seemed like every incoming freshman who passed by. “What’s your major?” she would shout. Whatever the reply, Steggall would motion the student closer and deliver her pitch: “Awesome! We’re TX Votes, a nonpartisan organization on campus focused on voter registration and education.”

As I chatted with Phebillo and her team, it became clear that TX Votes has developed a sizable footprint on campus. Phebillo told me that during the 2016–17 school year, TX Votes deepened its involvement in the network of national organizations that help universities bolster turnout. It participated in both the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge and the Voter Friendly Campus program, drawing up a detailed plan that both created new initiatives and evaluated past work. After the 2016 election, the group further expanded its civic engagement alliance, which now has more than 100 organizational members. In March 2017, Phebillo became certified to train volunteer deputy registrars herself, allowing TX Votes to increase its training output.

One year later, in March 2018, several TX Votes members successfully campaigned to get the county to open a second polling place on campus. The group also devised a new strategy for registering students: visiting classrooms. Class, they reasoned, is where college students go (or, at least, are supposed to go), and students might be more tempted to register if everyone around them were registering as well. But to take advantage of this, TX Votes first needed permission from the university’s faculty.

“We emailed every single professor teaching a course at this university in fall 2018,” Anthony Zhang, the group’s incoming president, told me. “We had to manually compile that list, starting with accounting and going all the way down to Yiddish.”

I asked how long it took to get contact information for the school’s roughly 3,000 faculty. Zhang shook his head. “I honestly don’t even want to think about it,” he said.

There’s more, so go read the rest. As the story notes, TX Votes was helped by having a great working relationship with Travis County elected officials, in particular the two that are directly involved with elections, the County Clerk and the Tax Assessor. Thanks to the 2018 election, we now have a County Clerk in Harris County that is invested in helping people vote – the recent announcement about early voting centers coming to the UH and TSU campuses being a prime example of this – so now we also have an opportunity to follow TX Votes’ example. Let’s see if we can get those two added to the Best Colleges for Student Voting list next year. In the meantime, you can follow TX Votes on Facebook and Twitter.