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Former College Park student advocates for college campus voting locations

March 13, 2019

When Maya Patel was tasked with an assignment for her Communicating to Government class to build a portfolio about a policy issue she was passionate about, she never dreamed that it would some day be filed as an actual bill in the Texas legislature.

Patel, who grew up in The Woodlands and graduated from The Woodlands College Park High School, is now a junior at the University of Texas at Austin majoring in chemistry and aiming for a public policy certificate, too, but in the long term she hopes to get her master’s in public policy along with a law degree.

“My very long term goal is to bridge the gap between scientists and policy makers and help be a translator between the two,” Patel said.

First, however, she’s trying to enact change on her own campus and create a ripple effect on other large public universities in Texas. Through course work in the Communicating to Government class, Patel developed the idea for a bill that would require Texas counties that have large public universities (those with more than 10,000 students) to have on-campus polling locations.

“Of the 22 largest (Texas institutions), only seven have some form of polling location currently, whether it’s a full-time or temporary one. And some of them only have three days of polling with limited hours,” Patel said.

The bill is aimed at increasing student voting engagement. According to the organization Campus Vote Project, only 17 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds cast a ballot in the 2014 elections. While that number increased by roughly 10 percent in the 2018 elections, accessibility is the key to get more students to vote.

“It would help students access their fundamental right to vote. In many situations, we talk to students who don’t have a polling location, or the nearest one is an hour or two hours walking each way for college students who don’t have cars or if their city doesn’t have public transportation,” Patel said.

Patel and a classmate decided to do more research to pitch the bill to the office of state Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin. That was about a year ago, and now the bill has been introduced in both the Texas House and Senate.

“It’s hard to say if it’ll be passed. With the Texas legislature, thousands of bills are filed each session but only a few pass,” Patel said. “I would love to see it pass, but some of these bills that make changes to voting systems do take multiple times of being filed to pass.”

Whatever the outcome of the bill is, Patel said the process has been an informative learning experience along the way. Patel has also gotten to do advocacy training with other students as she builds a coalition of students and organizations that support this issue.

If the bill does pass, it would require Sam Houston State University to have on-campus polling locations.

Ashley Segura, a grant researcher assistant at the university’s Center for Community Engagement said the campus doesn’t currently have polling locations.

“There may be student drivers or collaboration with faculty members (to get students to the polls). Typically, that happens through student movements and organizations,” Segura said.

Even on the University of Texas campus ,with well over 50,000 students, Patel said there was just one polling location in the 2016 general election.

“We had long lines where students were having to wait three hours. The idea polling location wait should be a 30 minutes or less,” Patel said, who then advocated for a second polling location.

It worked: the campus now has two locations.

“That’s what democracy is all about, voters having an idea and wanting to see change, and then trying to make it happen. Even if it doesn’t pass, then we have students fired up about it and they can possibly advocate for a polling location on their campus,” Patel said.

jane.stueckemann@chron.com