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Timing is everything: Why 'off year' elections are a turnout buzz kill

The mayor of Fort Worth, Betsy Price, had an answer for her city's historically low turnout in local elections. She blamed the schools.

"Part of the problem is public schools aren't teaching civic engagement," she said during a mayoral debate in May, the election a few days away.

One of her challengers, though, blamed the press. "If the media would get more behind things and get a fire going, we'd have better turnout," James McBride said.

And another challenger blamed the politicians. "We have leaders who don't want people to come out and vote because they know a low voter turnout favors them," Deborah Peoples said.

Peoples, the local Democratic Party chairwoman, lost the election and Price, a Republican, won her fifth term. But the research on what influences turnout suggests it was Peoples who was onto something.

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Mail-in ballots await counting in Modesto, Calif., during the 2018 general election.

Suit challenges subjective system for rejecting Texas mail-in ballots

Election officials in Texas, the nation's second largest state and one that's rapidly becoming politically competitive, are being sued by voters and advocacy groups who say the way they reject mail-in ballots is unconstitutional.

The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in federal court in San Antonio by two voters and groups who advocate for the disabled, older and disabled veterans, people in jail, and young voters on college campuses.

People in all of those groups tend to make extensive use of mail-in ballots, not only in Texas but across the country. And litigating to ease the rules for this type of voting is becoming an increasing popular tactic for those pushing for better access to the ballot box.

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A voting site in Houston was crowded with signs and campaign workers last November. Federal judges declined to place Texas elections under federal oversight despite finding intentional discrimination in the drawing of legislative districts.

Texas survives suit demanding its elections be subject to Washington oversight

Elections in Texas will not be placed under Justice Department supervision, a panel of three federal judges has ruled, despite finding that election maps drawn for the state in 2011 were intentionally discriminatory against black and Latino people.

Texas had been one of the states where any changes in voting processes required federal approval, called "preclearance," because of a history of discriminatory practices. That ended in 2013 when the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutionally antiquated the system for deciding which places were to be put under federal oversight. However, another part of the Voting Rights Act permits the federal government to impose preclearance requirements for as long as 10 years in places where intentional racial discrimination is found.

The decision, announced Wednesday, said the congressional and state legislative boundaries drawn in 2011 were sufficiently discriminatory for Texas to be placed under supervision. But the judges decided not to impose that sanction, known as "bail-in" — at least not yet.

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By appointing vote coordinators and other leaders on college campuses, we can transform student participation in elections, writes Clarissa Unger.

Local leaders key to transforming our democracy

Unger is director of civic engagement for Young Invincibles, which seeks to mobilize young adults to advance solutions on higher education, health care, jobs and civic engagement.

Earlier this year, the House of Representatives passed legislation that would reform voting rights, campaign finance and government ethics. HR 1, the For the People Act, is widely regarded by democracy reform advocates as among the most important pieces of legislation since the Voting Rights Act. Importantly, the For the People Act includes a provision that would dramatically increase young adults' access to our registration and voting processes, transforming voter participation for years to come.

Building on a provision currently in the Higher Education Act, the For the People Act would ensure every college and university nationwide has a "campus vote coordinator" to answer students' questions about registering to vote, finding their polling location, and actually casting their ballot.

While this small step may ultimately seem insignificant, having a trusted messenger on campus to help students make their voices heard in an election makes sense when you consider the structural and psychological barriers students – who are often new to our voting process – face when voting. These challenges can include overestimating how long it takes to register, misunderstanding what they need to vote, or feeling that their vote will not impact the outcome of an election. All these barriers that can be overcome with the help of a trusted messenger.

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