When Maya Patel discusses her work registering young voters, she doesn’t talk much about herself. Instead, she focuses on the facts and issues. Her passion comes through loud and clear as she dives into not just what the obstacles are in Texas to get young voters registered, but also the solutions that she knows work. Patel is a recent graduate from the University of Texas at Austin in Travis County, where she created a classroom voter registration program ahead of the 2016 presidential election, allowing her to register students right where they were.
That dedication to provide access to students inspired Patel to help write a bill in the Texas legislature to open voting locations on campuses statewide. Patel co-authored HB 375, requiring universities with over 10,000 students to include a polling station on campus. The bill was then filed by Austin Democratic Rep. Gina Hinojosa. Since the filing of the bill, similar bills have been filed in other states by students like Patel.
The daughter of immigrants, Patel’s memory of taking pride in voting started early. ”I remember sitting at the dining table as a 9-year-old, quizzing my dad with flashcards as I helped him study for the U.S. citizenship test,” she says. “In the 2008 presidential election, he voted for the first time.”
Kassie Phebillo is the program coordinator for TX Votes. She both mentored and oversaw Patel’s work as a student at UTA. “Every single time Maya is given a seed of an idea, she turns it into something much bigger than any of us dream,” she says. “The fact that she was able to take that project from on-campus to a bill authored by our state representative and is now actively participating in MTV’s nationwide +1 the Polls campaign speaks to her tenacity.”
I interviewed Maya for Prism, and she discussed how she shows young people the importance of voting, why being the child of immigrants inspires her to exercise her civic duties, and how she sees the movement for on-campus voting rights moving forward.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Getting young voters to the polls has been your mission since early in your college career. What motivated you to take on the challenge of registering young voters?
When I first came to campus right before the November 2016 election, I wanted to do something to help engage my fellow students. I joined TX Votes—at the time UT Votes—and became a Volunteer Deputy Registrar (VDR), because in Texas you have to be a VDR to register others to vote. [I] registered over 250 of my peers in the month before the registration deadline for the 2016 general election. Come early voting and election day, the one UT on-campus polling location saw lines that were out the door and at times over three hours long. I saw so many students leave the line because they had to go to class or work.
Students were leaving the lines and not voting because they lacked access to a polling location with a reasonable wait time and transportation to get to another location with a shorter line. This made me realize that registering voters is only good if they have access to polling locations, which is why I advocated for a second on-campus polling location at UT for the 2018 election—which also saw incredibly high turnout—and today UT has two on-campus early voting locations and three election day locations.
My parents are immigrants to this country. The amount of civic power that comes with being able to vote is something that a lot of people who were born with that right take for granted. I firmly believe that democracy only functions when everyone participates. It’s important for me to help people navigate any barrier to participation so that they can act on the immense amount of power that comes with voting and can help make our democracy function.
What obstacles do young voters face when registering to vote and actually making it to the polls?
In Texas, registering to vote is the first big hurdle. There is no online voter registration and online tools that help you register to vote still require that you have a “wet” signature, which means physically signing the registration form and mailing it in. To put it frankly, a lot of students don’t own stamps or know where the post office is.
In addition to that, young people move around and every time, you have to reregister. From an organizer’s perspective this is an additional challenge given that the voter registration deadline is 30 days before an election.
What strategies have you implemented that have been the core of the success of your work in Travis County?
We have built up a Civic Engagement Alliance (CEA) that includes more than 100 student organizations. This has really helped us expand our reach and create a culture shift to make civic engagement more ingrained into everyday life on campus. Also, we use the CEA to engage students that we know have traditionally low levels of engagement. For example, we know our STEM students vote at much lower rates, so when we have the Student Engineering Council telling their fellow engineering students that they should vote, that comes across much better than a government student telling an engineering student that they should vote.
We have an amazing relationship with our county that has allowed us to do things like have on-campus VDR trainings and bring our elected county officials to campus to talk to students. In addition, having a great relationship with our county allowed us to successfully get a second on-campus early voting and election day polling location and a third location for election day only that was in West Campus, where lots of students live.
In February, Wisconsin held a local primary. I was unable to convince my 18-year-old sister to go out and vote. She said it didn’t even matter or make a difference. How do you encourage young voters to care and show them that their votes matter?
2020 is the first presidential election in which millennials will be the largest generation in the electorate and people under 35 will make up the largest-size voting block. If every single young person who has the ability to vote actually votes, we have the power to influence the results of the election in a big way and make sure that politicians are listening to our needs and making policies that benefit us.
I always like to remind people that local elections are so important to their daily lives. I try to find examples of local races in the area that were decided by only a small amount of votes and show someone that these close races are determined by voters like them.
Since you started this movement, you inspired legislation to allow more polling on college campuses in Texas. How do you envision the movement you started spreading beyond Travis County and even beyond Texas?
Ever since I was able to file a bill in the Texas legislature to place polling locations on the campuses of large public universities in Texas, I’ve seen this turn into a national movement. I’ve spoken to students in New York who are filing something similar in their state. I’ve worked with students at other campuses to help them through the process of advocating for a polling place on their campus. I’ve seen this be talked about more in working group meetings and be listed as a priority more for groups that work in this space.
I’ve also had the pleasure of working on the +1 the Polls program, which is the first national movement to place polling locations on college campuses. I’ve been able to take everything I learned while advocating for a second polling place on campus and also writing a bill in the Texas legislature and help develop resources like a toolkit, office hours, webinars, and mini grants to help students like me do this work.