Sumaiya Sheikh has heard about the key issues shaping the November election, such as women's reproductive rights, gun violence, climate change, immigration and how to move past the COVID-19 pandemic.
She has opinions on those topics, and she's excited about the chance to soon make them heard.
Sheikh, a 17-year-old senior at Austin High School, said she does not turn 18 until December and will not be able to cast a ballot in the upcoming midterm election. But she already has filled out most of a voter registration form – which she received on campus Thursday from representatives of the League of Women Voters of Houston – and plans to complete the paperwork and become a registered voter as soon as she is eligible.
"I feel like there's so much that needs to be addressed," Sheikh said. "The people that are in charge right now are older and they have different mindsets and opinions on things. Everybody has a valid opinion, but times are changing and things are evolving. And I feel like if younger people are voting, we can make changes way faster and they'd be more effective and there'd be way more support as well."
Teenagers across Houston ISD are feeling similarly empowered this week, because the start of a new school year is coinciding with a new initiative involving Texas' largest school district and the local chapter of the League of Women Voters, a non-partisan, grassroots organization that advocates for voting rights and education. It is deploying volunteer deputy voting registrars to 39 high schools on a rotating basis to help eligible students register to vote, provide registration forms to those like Sheikh who are not quite eligible and also to answer questions and provide information about how to vote and where to learn about political candidates and their views.
The partnership with HISD was about a year in the making, according to Nancy Kral, the vice president of voter services for the League of Women Voters of Houston. And while the local voting organization regularly holds registration drives at high schools and colleges in the region, Kral said this week's effort is unique in terms of its scale.
"This is the first time we have worked with HISD to make a deliberate, concerted effort to offer voter registration at every single high school in HISD during the same week," she said. "And it's pretty amazing."
HISD Superintendent Millard House II visited schools and spoke with media earlier in the week and discussed the initiative.
Mark Kerrissey, a longtime economics teacher at Austin, said he regularly helps his students register to vote and teaches them about the importance of participating in the democratic process. So he said he's encouraged to see such an initiative on a district-wide level.
The students who are taking advantage and getting registered can serve as models for their peers, according to Kerrissey, who said he plans to organize a field trip of sorts later this year and bus eligible students to a nearby polling location during the early voting period.
"It's so important for these kids to know the process of how to vote, having been registered, because when they leave here, it's very difficult to learn the process," Kerrissey said. "So find out now, and it's easier later on."
Kral said there seems to be an uptick of interest in the current election cycle, even in a state with historically low voter turnout, and especially among younger residents who typically do not vote as often as older citizens. Still, Sheikh said many of her classmates "really don't care" about politics or voting.
But registration initiatives like this week's open the door to conversations about voting and how it can impact lives, Sheikh said, particularly in underserved, low-income communities of color like the Second Ward. Another Austin student who is registering to vote, Diamond Quintana, said she is going to encourage her mother to register as well so they can vote together.
"Getting all these kids to register, they're going to tell their family members, because maybe their family members don't register to vote," Sheikh said. "They'll tell their parents, and their parents will tell their friends. It's a ripple effect, and that's why I'm glad they're doing this at Austin."
Three volunteer registrars from the League of Women Voters set up a table near the Austin cafeteria during lunchtime Thursday and had a steady stream of students come by and either register, ask questions or pick up handouts about voting in Harris County and Texas. Registration forms were available in four different languages – English, Spanish, Chinese and Vietnamese.
The volunteers also spoke about the initiative to students in Kerrissey's class.
"They explained what we can vote on and what we cannot vote on and what we should and should not wear when we go to the poll and all that," Quintana said. "I think they were very honest about it all. I think that attracted a lot of people's attention, because most people started talking and asking questions about what to do. So I think it was good."