President Obama didn’t mince words when calling out Texas leaders’ abysmal record supporting Texans’ right to vote.

“The folks who are governing the good state of Texas aren’t interested in having more people participate,” Obama said during Austin’s SXSW Festival.

He’s exactly right.

Time and again, our state’s leaders have refused even modest steps to improve voter participation. Last session, bills filed by myself and others to extend early voting, simplify voting by mail, automatically register voters when they get a driver’s license, and allow registration during early voting and on election day were all denied committee hearings. They also refused to authorize online voter registration, which 34 states allow.

Gov. Abbott said he has no interest in making it easier for people to vote, trotting out a thoroughly debunked claim that Texas has a voter fraud problem. It doesn’t.

Texas has a voter participation problem, which our leaders have exacerbated. First, they pushed through voter ID laws that federal courts found discriminate against minorities. And now, Texas is fighting a lawsuit alleging it misled thousands of prospective voters into believing they were registered when they were not.

It’s no surprise Texas ranks near last for voter participation. Statewide, only 21 percent voted in the March primaries. Voter turnout in El Paso was also 21 percent. The November 2015 election drew only 6.5 percent.

A group of young El Pasoans is trying to turn this around.

My office’s Youth Advisory Committee, which is comprised of high school and college students, created the Student Voter Initiative last year to increase high school student participation. Texas law requires high schools make voter registration applications available to students, but we found many schools weren’t aware of the law.

This fall, the Committee began presenting a non-partisan lesson plan to encourage area students to be civically engaged. During the lesson, students discuss an everyday problem and then vote on a solution to that problem. After voting, however, the Committee only counts a small percentage of votes. This demonstrates how few voters actually turn out. When those few votes are counted, students aren’t usually happy with the result.

“My classmates’ level of engagement before this presentation was really low,” recalled Christian Samaniego, a Coronado High junior. “But when we did the mock vote, they were really surprised to see how young people’s ideas aren’t being represented.”

The SVI is already increasing student turnout. Consider Ysleta ISD, where the Committee presented before the November election. In that election, about 12 percent of the roughly 500 SVI-registered students actually voted — almost twice the County’s overall turnout rate that election.

To date, the Committee has presented in Anthony, Canutillo, El Paso, San Elizario, and Tornillo ISDs, registering nearly 2,000 students — about 30 percent of all 18-year olds who were registered by March 1.

Overall student turnout in the March primaries was mixed, but encouraging. Roughly 15 percent of registered 18-year olds voted. Of these, about 13 percent were students who were registered through SVI. In addition, some schools voted at better levels; SVI-registered students at Andress and El Paso High Schools voted at over 20 percent. It’s likely that these students wouldn’t have voted at all but for the SVI.

These numbers aren’t perfect, but suggest that young people can break the cycle of voter apathy when they’re engaged. In fact, some of these students are already coming up with their own projects to engage with their peers and community.

Now, we’re working on ways to improve the program. The Committee will study what factors helped students actually turn out on Election Day. They’re also exploring partnerships with other community groups and institutions.

You can join these students in increasing civic participation. Register to vote, and encourage others to do so! Download a voter registration application through