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Friday, December 01, 2023 — Houston, TX

‘They do make a difference’: Rice registers to vote

Hai-Van Hoang / Thresher

By Juliana Lightsey     9/26/23 11:49pm

Another election season is upon us, with local candidates and amendments on the ballot. Rice’s civic engagement organizations are making an effort to amplify the voices of young adults and register as many students as possible in the coming months.

Veronica Reyna, an associate director of the Center for Civic Leadership, oversees Rice Votes, a collective of organizations aiming to promote political participation among students. Rice Votes registered 291 new students to vote during this year’s Orientation Week, an initiative that they’ve continued to prioritize during the semester. Reyna said they’ve now registered over 330 students.

The push for voter registration comes in anticipation of the November elections, when Houston ballots will include new candidates for mayor to replace Sylvester Turner, who has reached his two-term limit. Also on the municipal ballot are several City Council positions and 14 proposed amendments to the Texas Constitution. Reyna suggested students visit Houston League of Women Voters’ website to find a comprehensive, nonpartisan guide to the propositions as the election draws nearer. 

“Sometimes the language is very confusing, so the guide walks you through what a ‘yes’ vote would mean and what a ‘no’ vote would mean. It’s a wonderful resource … You can actually take it into the voting booth with you,” Reyna said. “These amendments might feel like minutiae, but they do make a difference in the quality of life of anybody who’s here.”

Students not from Harris County who would prefer to cast their vote in their home county must register to do so via absentee ballots, which they can find information on through TurboVote, an online voter platform partnered with Rice. This resource allows students to see the offices and policies up for election in their home county, as well as important deadlines for voting and registration. However, many opt to exercise their civic responsibility in Harris County, according to Reyna, who says the majority of Rice students are registered to vote in Houston.

“We have a significant percentage of Rice students registered to vote in the county … anywhere from 70 to 90 percent,” Reyna said. “If you’re living here for any amount of time, these laws are going to affect you.”

Although high voter registration rates are an accomplishment, Reyna outlined the importance of prioritizing actual voting, especially among young adults.

 “Young people are often ignored,” Reyna said. “If young people voted at even half the rate that the baby boomer age group votes at, that would have a significant influence on election outcomes.”

However, Rice students also tend to have a high yield rate, or percent of registered voters that actually end up voting. The National Study for Voting, Learning and Engagement’s voting report for Rice found that 89.9% of students registered to vote in 2020, and 77.9% of eligible students actually voted. 

Katherine Jeng, a Rice Votes democracy fellow and junior at Hanszen College, attributed these high engagement levels to the social atmosphere surrounding voting at Rice.

“Here, it’s easier because voting is like a community … People wait in line at the polls together, people plan out their ballots together,” Jeng said.

Rice’s institutional prioritization of civic engagement, such as providing shuttles to take students to early voting locations or designating no classes for next year’s presidential election day, may also play a large role in influencing voter turnout. 

Anna Xiong, the government information coordinator at Fondren Library, is a Volunteer Deputy Voter Registrar, meaning she is certified to register students to vote. Students interested in becoming VDVRs themselves can receive guidance to do so through the Kelley Center for Government Information at Fondren Library, according to Xiong, who has worked at the Kelley Center in collaboration with Rice Votes since 2019.

“I came to Rice from another university where I became a U.S. citizen … and I never cast my vote,” Xiong said. “I started [to vote] only after coming to Rice because the environment was very supportive.”

Rice’s network of organizations that promote civic engagement are promoting a wide variety of events in anticipation of upcoming elections. Voter registration tables will be available at the flu clinics in the Rice Memorial Center on Sept. 27 and Oct. 5. Civic Duty Rice is encouraging students to attend the Houston Youth Voters Conference, a student-led collaboration between schools in the area, on Sept. 3o. Rice Votes is also co-sponsoring a debate between Houston’s mayoral candidates on Oct. 18, which will take place in Duncan Hall.

According to Reyna, voting is just the first step in becoming civically engaged. Students can remain involved in politics in a number of ways between elections by communicating with their representatives, attending local government meetings, working in their communities and remaining informed.

“Most of the forms of political participation are non-electoral … The heart of our democracy is holding accountable those we put in power during elections,” Reyna said. “The sky is the limit in creating a 21st century democracy that reflects Rice students’ diversity and values.”

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