Texas Attorney General questions voter engagement activities in schools
Date Posted: 1/18/2018 | Author: Mark Wiggins
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a non-binding opinion on Wednesday, Jan. 17, at the request of Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) regarding certain school district and third-party activities to encourage and facilitate voting by school employees and students. Sen. Bettencourt filed the request in response to school district activities being encouraged by the Texas Educators Vote (TEV) coalition, of which ATPE is a member.
ATPE was one of several education groups that weighed in on Sen. Bettencourt’s request through formal correspondence to the Attorney General’s Opinion Committee. General Paxton invited stakeholders involved in the coalition effort to submit their input on the request by Jan. 12, 2018; Paxton's opinion in response to the senator's request was issued by the morning of the next business day (following a state holiday and closure of most state offices for one additional day on account of this week's ice storm).
“ATPE is disappointed that the Office of the Texas Attorney General spent so little time considering the merits of the request and the ancillary materials that it requested,” said Jennifer Canaday, ATPE Governmental Relations Director. The attorney general's opinion actually makes no reference to the additional information supplied by ATPE and other coalition partners in response to Sen. Bettencourt's request. “Nevertheless, there is nothing in today’s opinion that warrants a change in our direction. ATPE intends to continue our non-partisan get-out-the-vote efforts and our work with the Texas Educators Vote (TEV) coalition to encourage voter participation within the education community.”
Much of the attorney general's opinion focuses on questions about the use of school buses to transport students and school district staff to the polls during voting periods. In a press release yesterday, ATPE said that it disagrees with Paxton’s opinion that a court would likely find school-sponsored transportation of employees to polling places unconstitutional. However, both ATPE and the TEV coalition have always deferred to school district leaders to make decisions about any such transportation services.
“We trust that school boards will continue to make prudent decisions on this matter in light of all the legal advice available to them,” Canaday said.
ATPE stands by the information provided to the AG’s office in our correspondence dated Jan. 12, 2018. In that letter, ATPE pointed out a number of facts that had been overlooked or distorted in the senator’s request for an opinion. For instance, the “culture of voting” model resolution that has been promoted by ATPE and other members of the TEV coalition makes no reference whatsoever to political candidates, parties, or ballot measures. As such, ATPE continues to believe that adoption of such a resolution by school boards does not give rise to any potential violations of political advertising restrictions. We also highlighted the fact that ATPE and other member partners of the TEV coalition have worked to ensure that the coalition’s educational materials include guidance about what educators can and cannot do related to elections, including prohibitions on using school district resources for political advertising, which General Paxton similarly cited in his opinion.
Neither the TEV coalition website nor any other website linked to it as an external resource (such as ATPE’s TeachtheVote.org website and the Secretary of State’s Project V.O.T.E.) is used to promote specific candidates or ballot measures. Thus, ATPE maintains that the coalition’s and ATPE’s web-based GOTV resources, much like the Texas Secretary of State’s online voting resources, do not engender any violations of political advertising laws even in the event that a school district or its employees were to spend public funds to promote such Internet resources.
It’s also noteworthy that General Paxton’s opinion makes no mention of Sen. Bettencourt’s complaints about promotion of the TEV Coalition’s “Educator’s Oath to Vote” and about school district initiatives to encourage educators to vote and wear their “I voted” stickers to school. Sen. Bettencourt complained in his request for a legal opinion that such activities amounted to coercion by school administrators. The attorney general’s silence on these topics reinforces ATPE’s position that these types of nonpartisan GOTV activities are well within the legal rights of educators and school district officials and do not run afoul of any existing laws.
ATPE and our coalition partners are committed to emphasizing the importance of voting to the strength and future of our democracy, and we wholeheartedly support the he rights of educators and eligible students to participate in elections. We will continue to provide resources and suggestions to school districts and respect their administrations’ decisions about how to facilitate voter engagement on their campuses for educators and students.
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