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Rows of seated students encircled Beto O’Rourke as he made his case as to why he should be the next governor of Texas, which included promises to legalize marijuana, protect abortion rights and ensure school safety — a pitch he’d made at 18 other college campuses.
His event at the University of Texas at El Paso on Tuesday was his final stop on a two-week college tour focused on boosting turnout among young people, who are some of the least engaged members of the state’s electorate.
“It’s going to take all of us … talking to your classmates and your colleagues and your neighbors and your family members, giving them a reason in your own words, from your own heart why this is the most important election of their lifetimes and why they must participate if we’re going to be able to come through at the end of the day,” O’Rourke told the roomful of 100 students inside the El Paso Natural Gas Conference Center across from the library.
O’Rourke’s 2018 Senate campaign is credited with the double-digit percentage increase in overall turnout from the 2014 midterms, with significant gains made among young voters.
O’Rourke said Tuesday that he expects youth turnout this year to exceed that of 2018, which he believes will be key to unseating two-term Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in the Nov. 8 election.
Young voters, he said, “literally will provide the margin of victory when we win.”
In the 2018 midterms, 18- to 24-year-olds made up 9% of El Paso County’s total voters. Though a small share, turnout among this age group jumped by nearly 460% from 2014 — an increase of about 14,500 voters, according to an El Paso Matters analysis of county voting records. Even with the huge jump, only about a third of registered El Paso voters aged 18 to 24 cast ballots in 2018.
Statewide, voter turnout by people under 30 jumped 234% in 2018, according to the Associated Press.
Though campus visits were a part of O’Rourke’s Senate run, the campaign has made a number of changes to ensure young people go vote, his spokesperson Chris Evans said. This includes hiring full-time organizers at 50 community college and university campuses, who in turn recruited volunteers to register students to vote ahead of Tuesday’s deadline.
It’s also working to capitalize on the excitement of its on-campus rallies to sign students up for block-walking and phone banking events in the days immediately afterward. The campaign counts 100,000 active volunteers and aims to knock on 5 million doors in the weeks leading up to Election Day, Evans said.
The Abbott campaign hasn’t done any visible outreach at university campuses and it did not respond to a request for comment about its youth voter engagement efforts. Texas Republicans have largely focused their efforts on hosting multi-day youth summits aimed at high school and college students.
“O’Rourke has done better than any statewide candidate that I can think of in terms of engaging these younger voters,” said Richard Pineda, an El Paso political analyst and chair of UTEP’s communication department.
But there are challenges with focusing youth outreach on college campuses, Pineda cautioned. A number of students at the state’s major campuses — like Houston’s Rice University or the University of Texas at Austin, both stops on the tour — are out-of-state residents who likely won’t switch their registration to Texas.
“And with the exception of places where you’ve got commuter campuses like UTEP, you’re talking about students that are probably not registered in those counties in which they go to school,” Pineda added. Texas voters can only cast a ballot at a polling place within the county where they’re registered, though students have until Oct. 28 to apply for a mail-in ballot.
Even with the logistical hurdles that discourage youth voter participation, O’Rourke believes social issues will spur turnout, he told reporters after the UTEP event.
He opened his 30-minute speech talking about restrictions Texas Republicans have placed on voting, which made it harder to vote by mail and banned overnight and drive-thru voting. He followed it by talking about the state’s ban on nearly all abortions, before turning to the Aug. 3, 2019, El Paso mass shooting and the more recent Uvalde school shooting, and the loosening of state gun laws.
UTEP students Ruby Medina, 21, and Madeline Acosta, 20, had their minds made up for O’Rourke even before seeing him speak.
“His values perfectly align to mine,” Medina said. “He’s a huge advocate for women’s rights, minorities, gun rights.”
Even though O’Rourke still has an uphill fight to return Texas under the control of a Democratic governor for the first time since 1995, both students are committed to participating in this election.
“Your one vote can make a difference,” Acosta said. “If you get a whole group (of voters) it’s going to make a change.”