Voter registration

Erin Payseur Oeth helps students during a voter registration event in the lobby of North Russell Hall at Baylor University.

More McLennan County residents are registered to vote than at any time in the past decade, and local groups are seeing a boost in people interested in becoming registrars to help sign up even more eligible voters.

Still, more than 50,000 adult residents in McLennan County remain unregistered with 24 days to go before the Oct. 9 deadline for the November midterms.

Woodway resident Mary Perez became a volunteer deputy voter registrar about 14 years ago during a push at McLennan Community College to get students registered, she said.

She was a student at the time and has maintained the status over the years, along with a supply materials in case she runs into anyone looking to register, Perez said.

“It’s so vital,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s because I’m the child of people that immigrated to this country, maybe that has something to do with it. Our voice is really so precious. It’s the only way we can affect change. Our system is definitely far from perfect but it is at least a meaningful way an individual can get out their voice.”

The role of a voter registrar is nonpartisan. Many are affiliated with a political party in other roles, but some registrars maintain the status on their own.

While anyone can pick up their own registration form and submit it to their elections office, registrars can make the process easier by getting forms directly to people and collecting completed forms to submit. It is illegal for non-registrars to receive another person’s completed registration form.

Anyone unsure if they are registered to vote can check at votetexas.gov/register-to-vote/.

The Secretary of State’s Office removes voters from the registered voter rolls if a voter is in "suspense" status, meaning the voter's record in the county's system has an incorrect address, and the voter does not vote or correct their information in two federal election cycles, said Jared Goldsmith, McLennan County Elections Office assistant elections administrator.

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Voters

Residents gather at a voter registration desk during a Beto O’Rourke campaign stop on La Salle Avenue.

Closing the gap

The Census estimated there were 251,259 McLennan County residents in 2017. Of that total, roughly 26.6 percent of those residents were 18 years old or younger, leaving roughly 189,367 eligible to register to vote.

About 189,000 of McLennan County’s 251,000 residents as of last year were 18 or older. As of Friday, 137,290 McLennan County residents were registered to vote, meaning more than 50,000 adult residents are not registered, though it is unclear how many are eligible.

McLennan County does not track how many residents are ineligible because they are not United States citizens, have been determined by a court to be mentally incapacitated, or have not completed their punishment for a felony conviction.

Voter registration events are being held across the county, and applications are also available at local party headquarters, city offices, libraries and the McLennan County Elections Office. Those interested in registering to vote must be 17 years, 10 months of age or older and be 18 by Election Day; a United States citizen; a resident of McLennan County; have not been determined by a court to be mentally incapacitated; and if having been convicted of a felony, have completed all punishment.

Written applications can be mailed or dropped off at the county elections office in the Records Building, 214 N. Fourth St. suite 300, Waco, between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. An application requires a person to provide a Texas driver’s license number or personal identification number issued by the Texas Department of Public Safety. Anyone without those numbers can provide the last four digits of their Social Security number. Anyone without a Texas driver’s license number, personal identification number or social security number must check the box acknowledging so on the form. Including a phone number is optional but encouraged in case handwriting is not legible.

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Voter registration

Baylor student Antonio Cardenas listens to Erin Payseur Oeth as he takes a voter registration form to fill out.

Political activity has increased across the area ahead of the November election, said George Brinegar, vice Chairman of the McLennan County Republican Party. Midterms typically see less interest than presidential election years, Brinegar said.

“But I think that’s completely inaccurate for this midterm,” he said. “This midterm has a lot of significance and seems to have a lot of interest.”

Brinegar, a retired brigadier general, said he has been all across the world, and McLennan County does not suffer from as much apathy as other parts of the country.

“I think the reason I don’t hear that or see that, I think is because so many of the races here in the last five or six years have been significant,” Brinegar said. “Look at the (Ted) Cruz-(Beto) O’Rourke campaigning. Look at D.L. Wilson versus Pat Miller. Look at Clinton versus Trump. There really is no such thing as an automatic election anymore.”

He said races in the county are hotly contested because the area is full of people who care.

“I got to tell ya’, we beat ourselves up a lot for this area, but having been somewhere else and coming back, we’ve got some really terrific people here in this county that really care,” he said. “I think we take that for granted a lot.”

Schools

For the past three years, Jackie Rhodes has volunteered under Project V.I.E.R., or Voter Information Education & Registration, through the Waco NAACP.

The program takes volunteers into high schools across McLennan County to talk to seniors about the importance of voting and to allow any interested and eligible student the opportunity to register, Rhodes said.

Mann said the group has been registering seniors at schools for about five years and has events scheduled until Oct. 9.

Some schools have their own efforts in place to register seniors, while others are more eager for assistance.

Rhodes said she speaks about the struggles the country has faced in getting to the point where everyone can vote, not candidates or issues.

“We still deal with issues all the time. It’s really a privilege to vote in this country,” she said. “A lot of people have put a lot of effort and struggle into getting us where we are today.”

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voter registration

Baylor University student Hannah Walker fills out a pledge to vote during a voter registration event in the lobby of North Russell Hall.

Rhodes said she has even taken a voting machine into the classrooms so students can see how they work before getting to the polls.

“Ours (in McLennan County) are a little unusual,” she said. “We don’t use touch screens or anything like that.”

For Baylor University students, the question is often whether to register locally or request an absentee ballot for the county where they moved from, said Erin Payseur Oeth, Baylor associate director of civic learning.

The decision is up to the student, but officials remind them they can only be registered in one county, she said.

Marylaine Hight Driese has been a voter registrar for about three years and said she initially got involved as a response to actions taken by President Donald Trump.

“I’ve noticed when I go to the elections and stuff it’s all these really old people,” Driese said. “Granted I’m not young but I said, you know some people need to step in.”

She said she volunteers with the local Democratic Party and attends events to help get people registered.

“You don’t ask them anything that’s political or anything, just whether they are a resident,” she said. “The most disturbing thing that happens … We’ll say, ‘Are you registered to vote.’ They’ll say, ‘No I don’t want to,’ or ‘No I don’t vote.’” That’s really bothersome. Of course, we try and be friendly and say, ‘Oh you really need to,’ but what you want to say is ‘What!’ ”

Helping people

For the past five years, about five people have volunteered to help register high school students at various campuses, said Mary G. Mann, McLennan County Democratic Party secretary. Most of the increased interest she has seen has been among women, she said.

“This year we have 30 who have attended training and signed up to go into high schools,” she said. “I think our national situation definitely is the main cause for people turning out.”

A provision in the Texas Election Code requires all high school principals to serve as deputy voter registrars. The Texas Secretary of State website lists superintendents who pledged 100 percent participation among their district’s high school principals as registrars. Some of the local superintendents that signed the list come from Waco ISD, Midway ISD, West ISD, Crawford ISD, and Bruceville-Eddy ISD.

More people are realizing the civic responsibility that is voting, Mann said.

“Your vote is your voice, and you don’t have a voice unless you vote,” Mann said. “I don’t care whether Democrat, Independent or I’ll say it, Republican, just go vote.”

Many people who have dropped by the McLennan County Republican Party headquarters are seeking absentee ballots, deputy registrar Linda Hill said.

“I had a lady come in yesterday wanting to get a ballot by mail for her husband because he couldn’t get out to vote. Plus he wasn’t registered,” she said. “We’re just trying to help people that way.”

The last day to apply for a ballot by mail is Oct. 26. Ballot by mail applications are on the county website — co.mclennan.tx.us/813/Ballot-By-Mail-Application — and must be sent to the county election office.

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Voter registration application

Voter registration application

Cassie L. Smith has covered county government for the Tribune-Herald since June 2014. She previously worked as a reporter for the Beaumont Enterprise and The Eagle in Bryan-College Station. Smith graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington.

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