|McALLEN, December 1 - In an effort to reach its goal of a 65 percent voter turnout in the Rio Grande Valley, a local non-profit organization is collaborating even more closely with area school districts.
The Advocacy Alliance Center of Texas (AACT) has signed “Advocacy Awareness through the Collaboration of Teachers Youth Voter Initiative Program” agreements with 19 school districts in the region.
The seven-part program includes a voter curriculum for senior students in their government classes, staff workshops that stress the importance of voting, airing AACT public service announcements on school TV channels and websites, and a message from the desk of the superintendent encouraging staff to Get out the Vote. Some of the schools have even agreed to transport students to the polls as a civic engagement lesson.
“We are very excited about our collaboration with the school districts. By getting our youth to vote we will be fostering a culture of voting that will ensure future generations in the Valley do it automatically,” said Luzelma Canales, president of AACT.
Canales pointed to a rally AACT held before the 2012 presidential election at the McAllen Convention Center. More than 13,000 seniors in high school attended, hearing speakers from the local, state, and national scene discuss the importance of voting. And, at an appreciation luncheon for Valley superintendents at the Edinburg Conference Center at Renaissance in August, state Sen. Juan Hinojosa spoke about the impact a high voter turnout in the Valley can have on state leaders and policymakers.
“We know this younger generation really cares about the world and the community. We want for them to make a connection to civic engagement and to know that voting is the way they will get their voice heard,” Canales said. “You can see how our kids really care about democracy when you take a look at how many join our military. Voting is another way to do that.”
The school districts participating in AACT’s Collaboration of Teachers Youth Voter Initiative Program are: Brownsville, Donna, Edinburg, Harlingen, IDEA, Lasara, La Feria, La Joya, La Villa, McAllen, Mercedes, Mission, PSJA, Raymondville, Roma, Santa Rosa, Sharyland, South Texas, and Weslaco.
Some of the school districts have agreed to create a roster of faculty and staff who are willing to create accountability reports for organizations that are part of the AACT collaboration. Some have agreed to distribute AACT materials and literature to promote voter awareness.
“The superintendents have been fantastic. The staff in the school districts has been fantastic. Our focus is on the schools because we really believe the young folks are the ones that can lead us in the charge,” Canales said.
AACT has been operating for three years. Its mission is to “educate, engage and empower the community by providing them a network of support.” Its goal is to “create long-term and structural changes in South Texas by meaningful civic participation and educating the community on the importance of their vote and voice in the electoral process.”
The AACT board of directors comprises Luzelma Canales, of Educate Texas/Communities Foundation of Texas, as chair, Robert Nelsen, president of UT-Pan American, as vice president, Mario Reyna, dean of business and technology at South Texas College, as secretary, and Dr. Ambrosio Hernandez, of Driscoll Hospital, as treasurer.
Other board members include Alonzo Cantu, of Cantu Construction, Israel Rocha, of Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, Rodrigo Rodriguez, of Rio Bravo Productions, attorney Kelly Rivera-Salazar, the outgoing chair of Hidalgo County Democratic Party, attorney Javier Villalobos, the outgoing chair of Hidalgo County Republican Party, Juan Peña, of Valley Land Title Co., and Dr. Nolan Perez, of Gastroenterology Consultants of South Texas.
Judging by registration and turnout numbers, AACT, its partners, and other GOTV efforts are having a positive impact. In the 2012 general election the turnout was up in Hidalgo County (46 percent), Cameron County (43 percent) and Starr County (39 percent). Of the 11 largest counties in Texas, only Hidalgo increased its voter turnout percentage in 2012, by seven percent.
AACT and its partner organizations have registered over 17,000 people to vote. And voter registration between 2008 and 2012 grew in Cameron, Hidalgo and Starr counties, while decreasing in counties such as Galveston, El Paso, Fort Bend, Bexar, Denton, Tarrant, Dallas, Collin, Travis and Harris.
However, AACT leaders know they have a challenge on their hands. Six out of ten registered voters exercise that right in Texas as a whole. In the Valley it is only four out of ten.
Canales, the AACT president, said that by working together, communities across the Valley can improve voter turnout. To it, she said, mobilization has to take place between families, friends, neighbors, associates, businesses, non-profits, schools and churches.
“Voting consistently gives us a voice and brings state and federal funding to South Texas,” Canales said, referencing the difference such funding can bring to education, healthcare and infrastructure.
“The only way we are going to get the kinds of resources we need is if the community sends a really loud voice that we are not going to be ignored, that the Rio Grande Valley matters. Think about it, the rest of the state is going to look like us soon. We have to be leaders. If you saw the newspaper the other day, we are being looked at for innovation. If we all do our part, if we work professionally, we can increase our vote in the next few elections. And, by getting our youth to participate, it will be something future generations just do.”