Texans take pride in doing things big, and apparently in the case of Attorney General Ken Paxton, doing things wrong.
Paxton has been a staunch defender of gerrymandered congressional and legislative districts drawn by the state’s Republican-controlled legislature and an advocate for state laws that make it more difficult for Texans to vote. Now, according to media reports, Paxton is warning teachers and school administrators that in-school efforts to encourage eligible students and teachers to register and vote and then to transport them to the polls on Election Day may violate Texas law.
Let that soak in for a moment: the state of Texas’ top legal officer says it’s illegal for teachers to encourage their colleagues and eligible students to exercise the most fundamental right in our democracy.
“Absent the performance of some educational function on behalf of the district's students, we question whether providing transportation for employees to and from polling places serves a public purpose of the school district," Paxton wrote in an opinion issued in January.
Though not binding on school officials, the attorney general’s formal opinions on legal questions are often relied on by school officials.
Paxton’s warning comes in the midst of a bitter fight over school funding in the Lone Star State, with teachers’ groups pressing the legislature and Gov. Greg Abbott to funnel more state aid to education.
The Texas Tribune reports that a teachers’ group, Texas Educators Vote, has partnered with other organizations to urge that school boards implement “no cost” incentives, including driving students and staff to polling places, to encourage voting.
More than 100 school boards have embraced the proposal, according to the Tribune, which noted that the groups aren’t backing any party or candidates. Texas Educators Vote’s website asks supporters to vote “in support of the more than 5.4 million Texas school children,” however.
That modest plea apparently struck fear into the hearts of Republican lawmakers and their allies. One conservative group, Empower Texans, argues that the teachers are electioneering on the taxpayers’ dime, a practice prohibited by state law.
“Voting in mass, they would influence statewide office and state legislative races. Locally, the combined voter block would have the mass to virtually guarantee approval of tax ratification elections and bond propositions. All it takes is registration, indoctrination and mobilization,” Tom Fabry, treasurer of the Frisco Tea Party, wrote for Empower Texans in November. “And it’s all being done under the guise of ‘civic responsibility.’”
“Attorney General Paxton seems to be more interested in protecting his political allies from the workings of our democracy than in helping his constituents – regardless of party or ideology – exercise their right to vote,” said Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of Common Cause Texas. “We’d urge the attorney general to pay a bit more attention to another Texas law: the one requiring school officials to circulate voter registration forms to eligible students at least twice a year.”
Issues: Voting and Elections