Youth Civic Engagement

Why it matters

Current Population Study (CPS) data compiled by the NCoC and broken down by age shows that younger residents (ages 18-37) in Greater Houston participate in an array of civic activities at lower rates than their older counterparts. While the 2018 NCoC data does not provide statistics on the civic activity of youth under age 18, it does help us better understand civic engagement among younger Houstonians. Just 45% of this age group reported voting, as compared to 57.4% of Generation X Houstonians and 67.8% of Houston-area Baby Boomers. The gap between older and younger voters is even starker when it comes to voting in local elections, with just 29.2% of Houston adults under age 37 reporting that they always or sometimes do so. Just 2.8% of young people have contacted or visited a public official, and 4.6% have attended a public meeting.

To have a long-term impact on civic engagement in the Houston region, it is critical to develop young people who are knowledgeable, who are oriented to civic involvement, and who have been explicitly invited to become part of the region’s civic fabric. Extensive research makes it clear that civic engagement is habitual; young people who are civically engaged tend to remain engaged as they move forward into adulthood.

Often, civic engagement is seen as beginning at age 18, when young people become old enough to vote. Yet, many civic activities in both the social (e.g., volunteerism, charitable donations) and political spheres (e.g., public expression, canvassing, educating voters, etc.) are not age-limited. Through knowledge-building and experiential activities, elementary and secondary students can begin to develop life-long habits of civic engagement through involvement in a wide array of non-voting activities.


1) U.S. Census Bureau, “Current Population Survey (CPS) 2013-16.”

Youth Below Voting Age

Classrom-Based Civic Education

Among the core objectives of public education in Texas is to “prepare students to be thoughtful, active citizens." The required state curriculum for grades K-12 specifically includes content related to civic engagement.

  • The Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for Social Studies specify knowledge expected of students at all grades. Among these standards:
  • 1st – 3rd grade: “identify characteristics of good citizenship, including…participation in government by educating oneself about the issues, respectfully holding public officials to their word, and voting.”
  • 7th grade: “explain and analyze civic responsibilities of Texas citizens and the importance of civic participation”
  • 8th grade: “identify examples of responsible citizenship, including…staying informed on public issues, voting;” “understand the importance of voluntary individual participation in the democratic process”
  • High school: “understand the responsibilities, duties, and obligations of citizenship;” “understand the voter registration process and the criteria for voting in elections.”

State policy sources: Tex. Educ. §4.001; §28.002; 19 Tex. Admin. Code §113.12-.44

TEA is required to develop and administer a statewide social studies assessment to be taken in 8th grade and an end-of-course U.S. History assessment to be taken in high school.

State policy source: Tex. Educ. §39.023

Like all other states, Texas has social studies standards that its students must meet; these standards are under review by the State Board of Education in 2018-19. Like 40 other states, Texas requires students to complete at least three years of social studies coursework in order to graduate from high school. With its 8th grade assessment, Texas joins 20 other states in requiring students to take a state-designed test on social studies content. In 2018, 64% of Texas 8th graders met the minimum passing standard on this test, while a lower percentage, 54%, of HISD 8th graders met the minimum passing standard.

As of 2012, Texas was one of only nine states requiring passage of a social studies test (in U.S. History) in order to graduate from high school. In 2018, 92% of Texas students and 89% of HISD students passed this test.

In 2017, the Texas House of Representatives passed a bill (HB 1776) that would have replaced this high school history exam with a civics exam similar to that taken by immigrants to become U.S. citizens. A recent movement to get states to require passage of this civics exam prior to graduation has resulted in successful legislation to do so in eight states; other states require the exam, but do not make passage a graduation requirement. Supporters of this bill argued that such an exam would help address a civics gap in current Texas curricula, while opponents argued that memorizing civic facts for such an exam may not sufficiently contribute to students’ civic learning. Although the bill had strong bipartisan support, it died without committee consideration in the Texas Senate.


1) Samuels, A. and Aditi Bhandari. 3 May 2017. “Texas may require students to pass a citizenship test. How would you do?” Texas Tribune. Retrieved from

2) Brennan, J. and Hunter Railey. Sep 2017. “The Civics Education Initiative 2015-2017.” Education Commission of the States. Retrieved from

3) STAAR Resources. n.d. Texas Education Agency. Retrieved from

4) Godsay, S., Whitney Henderson, Peter Levine, and Josh Littenberg-Tobias. 19 Oct 2012. “State Civic Education Requirements.” The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. Retrieved from

5) STAAR Statewide Summary Reports 2017-2018. n.d. Texas Education Agency. Retrieved from 7-2018/

6) Lathan, G. 16 Jul 2018. “District and School Results from the Spring 2018 STAAR Assessments for Grades 3 through 8.” Houston ISD. Retrieved from STAAR 3-8 Report.pdf

7) Preliminary HISD STAAR scores show strong gains across multiple grades, subjects, and student groups. 19 Jun 2018. HISD News Blog. Retrieved from

Community Service/Service-Learning

When each district evaluates its schools and assigns them a performance rating, one of the many categories of performance that must be evaluated is “opportunities for students to participate in community service projects.”

State policy source: Tex. Educ. §39.0545

Community service and service-learning are two common forms of engaging people in volunteerism. Community service typically involves youth participating in volunteer activities, while service-learning refers to volunteer activities which are explicitly tied to curricular goals and which offer young people the opportunity to reflect on their volunteerism.

Along with almost all other states, Texas has no statutory requirement requiring community service or service learning; it should be noted that the evidence base for the long-term civic benefits of mandatory youth volunteerism is mixed. Both Maryland and Washington, D.C. require volunteer service prior to graduation. As of 2014, six states permit school districts to adopt their own volunteer service requirements prior to graduation. While Texas doesn’t have a law explicitly permitting districts to create their own volunteerism requirements, several Texas school districts (e.g., Duncanville ISD; Midlothian ISD) and some individual specialized schools currently require students to complete service hours prior to graduation.

An alternative to mandatory volunteer requirements is to provide incentives for volunteerism. Five states, not including Texas, enable students to receive recognition on their diplomas (i.e., an endorsement or seal) if they participate in community service or service learning.

Texas permits students to gain credit for community service or service-learning within two courses that can help meet graduation requirements, if offered by their school districts. Tex. Admin. Code §74.27 permits school districts to seek state approval to offer innovative courses. According to the state’s Legislative Budget Board, one state-approved innovative course is “Service Learning,” which was offered by eight Texas districts or charter schools between 2007 and 2012 and continues to be offered.


1) High School Graduation Requirement or Credit toward Graduation — Service-Learning/Community Service. Jan 2014. Education Commission of the States. Retrieved from

2) Community Service and Service-Learning Programs in Public High School. April 2013. Legislative Budget Board. Retrieved from

3) Kim, J. and Kerem Morgül. 13 May 2017. “Long-Term Consequences of Youth Volunteering: Voluntary Versus Involuntary Service.” Social Science Research, 67, 160-175. Retrieved from

Political Socialization

A child under the age of 18 is permitted to accompany their parent in the voting station.

Texas policy source: Tex. Elec. §64.002

State law provides guidelines for a governing body, e.g., a commissioners court, to call mock elections for students in grades K-12, in conjunction with any general, special, or primary election. Mock elections involve students casting an unofficial ballot on the same measures and offices as on the official ballot.

Mock elections are permitted to take place within either a precinct polling place or alternate location, but if they are held at an adult polling location, voting booths must be at least 50 feet away from an adult voting booth. If a mock election is ordered by a governing body to be held in an adult polling location, it must be held on Election Day or the day prior. Mock elections should seek to adopt the most common voting system in the students’ community, but must use a distinct set of election officers from the regular polling place.

Results of the mock election can be made public after adult polling locations close on Election Day. Expenses for conducting this election can only be paid for from private sources.

State policy sources: Tex. Elec. §276.007; 1 Tex. Admin. Code §81.301

As noted previously, research consistently finds that civic engagement is habitual. Engaging children and youth in civic activity at a young age sets the stage for subsequent civic participation as they continue to grow. Research also finds that programs that engage children under 18 in election-based learning and mock elections impacts both youth attitudes towards civic engagement and increases voting among their adult family members.

The Texas Secretary of State partners with Project V.O.T.E., a national nonpartisan civic education nonprofit, to implement a statewide mock election program to teach young people about the electoral process. Partner schools are listed on a special Secretary of State mock elections website. This website provides resources to school staff, as well as an after-election tally of how students across the state voted in the mock election.

Among the school districts listed as 2016 participants, several were located in Harris County, including Aldine ISD, Galena Park ISD, Houston ISD, Katy ISD, Spring ISD, Spring Branch ISD, and Tomball ISD. Based on the individual high schools, junior high schools, middle schools, intermediate schools, and elementary schools explicitly listed as participants on the Secretary of State’s website, 2% of Aldine ISD (1 of 66 schools), 4% of Galena Park ISD (1 of 24 schools), 2% of Houston ISD (5 of 273 schools), 8% of Spring ISD (3 of 38 schools), 3% of Spring Branch ISD (1 of 36 schools), and 5% of Tomball ISD (1 of 20) schools participated. While Katy ISD was listed as a district partner, no individual Katy schools were listed.


1) Texas Administrative Code: Title 1: Part 4: Chapter 81: Subchapter J: Rule 81.301. n.d. Texas Secretary of State. Retrieved from$ext.TacPage?sl=R&app=9&p_dir=&p_rloc=&p_tloc=&p_ploc=&pg=1&p_tac=&ti=1&pt=4&ch=81&rl=301

2) 2016 Presidential Student Mock Elections. n.d. Project V.O.T.E. Retrieved from

3) A. Linimon & M. Joslyn. 1 March 2002. “Trickle Up Political Socialization: The Impact of Kids Voting USA on Voter Turnout in Kansas.” State Politics & Policy Quarterly, 2, 24-36.

High School Students Of or Near Voting Age


Individuals may register to vote once they are at least 17 years and 10 months old. The registration becomes effective on the last of: 30 days after submission to the registrar, or the applicant’s 18th birthday.

If the registration will be effective on Election Day, it is also effective during the preceding early voting period, even if the voter is not yet 18.

Texas policy sources: Tex. Elec. §13.001; §13.143

Preregistration laws allow young people to register to vote before they turn 18 with the goal of increasing youth turnout. Texas permits preregistration on the part of young people two months in advance of turning 18.

States vary widely in terms of preregistration. 13 states plus the District of Columbia allow preregistration at age 16; 6 allow preregistration at age 17; 4, including Texas, allow preregistration at some point between 17 and a half and 17 years and 10 months, regardless of whether the young person will be 18 on the next Election Day.


1) Preregistration for Young Voters. (28 Mar 2018). National Conference for State Legislatures. Retrieved from

2) Automatic Voter Registration and Modernization in the States. 11 April 2018. Brennan Center for Justice. Retrieved from

3) Eckman, S. 24 Jan 2018. “Federal Role in Voter Registration: The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 and Subsequent Developments.” Congressional Research Service. Retrieved from

Registration in High Schools

In every Texas public and private high school, the principal or a staff/teacher designee serves as a deputy registrar in the county where the school is located. This individual is required to secure voter registration application forms directly from the Secretary of State; distribute applications twice a year to every student who will be 18 or older during the semester; and receive and review completed applications from students and school employees.

Each application should be accompanied by a notice informing the student or school employee that they may return the application to the school deputy registrar, or they can deliver it on their own to the county voter registrar.

High school voter registrars must deliver applications they receive to the county registrar within 5 days of receipt; failure to do so constitutes a Class C misdemeanor.

Texas policy sources: Tex. Elec. §13.046; 19 Tex. Admin. Code §81.7

In a recent report by Project Vote, 16 states reported having a high school voter registration program in state law, and nine states reported that their law requires high schools to participate. Texas’ law doing so has been in effect for approximately 25 years. However, data suggest that most public high schools in Texas do not adhere to this law. School staff are expected to reach out directly to the Secretary of State to request specific application forms; however, the TCRP calculates that 34% of public high schools and just two private high schools in the state have reached out to order applications. TCRP’s analysis finds that there is extensive lack of clarity and confusion at schools about this law and school staff’s responsibilities in implementing it.

The Secretary of State’s website includes a list of more than 140 Texas superintendents who have signed a pledge to engage their high school principals in this voter registration initiative. Among these 140 districts, some are located in Harris County, including Houston ISD, Houston Gateway Academy, Inc., Pasadena ISD, Tomball ISD, La Porte ISD, Crosby ISD, Galena Park ISD, and Aldine ISD. However, evidence from TCRP’s analysis of high school voter registration data in Harris County indicates that just two districts in the county (Tomball ISD and Alief ISD) and 47 individual high schools requested voter registration applications. The majority of high schools, 99, did not request voter registration forms from the state.


1) Malewitz, J. and Alexa Ura. 15 Sep 2017. “Principals aren’t registering high schoolers to vote. Texas is turning to superintendents.” Texas Tribune. Retrieved from vote/

2) Texas Superintendents Commit to Cultivating Lifelong Voters. n.d. Project V.O.T.E. Retrieved from

3) Texas High School Voter Registration: A How to Guide. Sept 2017. Texas Civil Rights Project. Retrieved from

4) Re: Failure to Enforce High School Voter Registration Law. 1 Sept 2017. Texas Civil Rights Project. Retrieved from

5) Testimony from the Texas Civil Rights Project to the National Commission on Voter Justice. n.d. Texas Civil Rights Project. Retrieved from

6) Slattery, J. Jul 2018. “High School Student Voter Registration: How Texas still fails to engage the next generation of voters.” Texas Civil Rights Project. Retrieved from

7) Texas is failing the next generation of voters. 2018. Texas Civil Rights Project. Retrieved from

8) Herman, J. and Lauren Forbes. n.d. “Engaging America’s Youth through High School Voter Registration Programs.” Project VOTE. Retrieved from

Transporting Youth to Polls

The Attorney General writes that while school districts are expressly directed to encourage voter education by the Legislature and the State Board of Education, there is no explicit academic purpose for transporting students or employees to polling locations. “Absent an educational purpose in providing students transportation to the polling location, a court would likely conclude that the transportation serves no public purpose of the school district and therefore violates…the Texas Constitution.”

State policy source: Texas Attorney General Opinion KP-0177 (2018)

This opinion by the Texas Attorney General was in response to an effort by Texas Educators Vote, a non-partisan advocacy organization, to encourage school boards to authorize administrators to use district vehicles to transport students and/or employees to polling locations. He was asked whether public funds could be used to do so. The Attorney General’s opinion explicitly sets a state policy that school district funds cannot be used for transporting students to the polls.


1) Platoff, E. 9 Feb 2018. “Civic Engagement or Illegal Electioneering? How a School Voting Project Became a Conservative Target.” KERA News. Retrieved from

2) Swaby, A. 17 Jan 2018. “Texas attorney general says it’s illegal for schools to bus kids to polling places in some cases.” Texas Tribune. Retrieved from

3) Paxton, K. 17 Jan 2018. Attorney General of Texas. Retrieved from

Student Election Clerks

Texas has created a student election clerk program, for Election Day and for early voting. A student who is at least 16 years old, a U.S. citizen, and who completes a training program is eligible to serve as a student election clerk.

Students must attend a public or private secondary school or be home-schooled, and have the appropriate principal’s (or parent/guardian’s) consent. No more than two student election clerks are permitted per precinct polling location on Election Day; no more than four student election clerks are permitted at an early voting polling location. A student election clerk may be compensated, as other election clerks are.

At the discretion of the teacher or sponsor, a student may apply time spent as an election clerk toward a school project requirement or a service requirement for an advanced course or extracurricular activity.

Texas policy sources: Tex. Elec. §32.0511; §33.092; §83.012

A youth election worker statute is common across many states. In Texas, the student is responsible for ensuring that their absence from school is excused. A student is permitted to be excused for serving as an election clerk for up to two days within a school year.


1) Youth Poll Workers. 2016. American Constitution Society. Retrieved from

2) Student Election Clerk Information. n.d. Texas Secretary of State. Retrieved from

College Students

An in-person voter must present one of seven forms of identification in order to vote; these do not include a student ID.

Texas policy source: Tex. Elec. §63.001

To vote in Texas, one must be a resident of the county in which one seeks to register to vote.

“Residence” is defined in state law as a home or fixed place to which a person plans to return after any brief absence. A place where one is living temporarily without planning to make it their home is not a “residence.” A person does not lose residence during a temporary absence away from one’s home.

In an opinion on residency requirements for college students to be eligible to vote, the Texas Attorney General relies on judicial precedent to determine that state determination of “residence” relies both on physical presence in the county and the applicant’s intention to make that “residence” home.

If a student is physically present somewhere and intends to make that county their home, then the student may register at that location. If the student’s intention remains elsewhere in the state (i.e., a parent’s home), then the student is expected to register at that address instead.

Texas policy sources: Tex. Elec. §1.015; §13.001; Texas Attorney General Opinion GA-0141 (2004)

As outlined in more detail in the “Voting” chapter, school or university ID cards are not permitted Voter IDs in Texas. This stands in contrast with the 17 U.S. states that explicitly list student IDs as an acceptable form of ID when voting. College students who intend to make the address where they live while in college their “residence” are expected to obtain a photo ID from DPS.

If a college student intends to make the address where they live while at college their home, Texas law permits them to register to vote using that address. However, like all other voters, a student must be registered at only one address. A college student who intends to return elsewhere and maintains that location as their residence may request an absentee ballot from that locality.

At times, controversy has arisen in Texas regarding how voter registration laws are implemented in regards to college students. One recent example took place during the 2018 midterm elections in neighboring Waller County. When initially registering to vote, large numbers of students living on campus at Prairie View A&M had been given incorrect information about which campus address to use on their registration applications. They had been instructed to use one of two campus shared addresses; however, one of these addresses was located in a different precinct than where the students live on campus.

Subsequently, students were informed that they could not cast a ballot in the appropriate precinct without completing a change-of-address form. As controversy grew over the additional paperwork requirements that some feared would harm student turnout, the Texas Secretary of State ultimately determined that the students did not need to complete change-of-address forms.

The Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts University published a 2018 report outlining steps that can be taken to increase civic engagement on college campuses. Among the Institute’s recommendations are specific steps that remove barriers to voting by students, including establishing an on-campus polling location. Some states have sought to limit this; however, in July 2018, a federal judge ruled that a Florida ban on early voting on college campuses violated the U.S. Constitution by discriminating against voters on the basis of age.

Of the 46 early voting locations used by Harris County in the 2018 general election, 5 appear to be located on campuses of higher education institutions – 4 on community college campuses (Houston Community College – Southeast College; Lone Star College – Victory Center; Lone Star College – Cypress Center; Lone Star College – Creekside Center), and one at the Northwest Houston extension of the Prairie View A&M University campus. In the 2016 general election, 6 of the 46 early voting locations were on college campuses (the five listed above, plus Lone Star College – Atascocita Center).

Of the eight largest public universities in Texas, each with projected enrollment in 2018 of over 30,000, only the University of Houston (the 3rd largest) did not offer an on-campus early voting location during the 2018 midterm elections. Harris County has previously cited parking limitations as a major obstacle to early voting at the University of Houston.


1) Abbott, G. 4 Feb 2004. Attorney General of Texas. Retrieved from

2) Student Voting Guide | Texas. 22 Oct 2014. Brennan Center for Justice. Retrieved from

3) Zdun, M. 16 Oct 2018. “Prarie View A&M University’s voter registration issues are resolved, but voting barriers remain.” Texas Tribune. Retrieved from

4) Thomas, N., et al. 2018. “Election Imperatives: Ten Recommendations to Increase College Student Voting and Improve Political Learning and Engagement in Democracy.” Institute for Democracy and Higher Education, Tufts University Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. Retrieved from

5) Bousquet, S. 24 July 2018. “Federal judge calls Florida ban on early voting at college campuses ‘discrimination.’” Miami Herald. Retrieved from

6) “Enrollment Forecast 2017-2030.” Jan 2017. Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Retrieved from

7) Grant, C. 25 Oct. 2012. “Buses shuttle students to early voting polls.” The Cougar. Retrieved from

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