As she zig-zags through the UH student center, one thing becomes clear: Maria Villenas may be soft-spoken, but she is not afraid to interrupt your lunch. In her teal backpack and American flag T-shirt, clipboard in hand, navigating a room full of Chick-fil-A scents and harsh lighting, she marches right to a table of summer-school students, ready to give her spiel about why they should register to vote. “We’re kind of in the middle of a test right now,” says one. Whoops!
Onward. A UH staffer, it turns out, is a legal resident, but not a citizen. A young man in a blue polo, meanwhile, seems like a promising lead, until it’s revealed he lives in Fort Bend County, outside Villenas’s jurisdiction. Two middle-aged women look almost sad to admit they’re visiting from Ohio. No matter: To be an effective registrar requires thick skin and geniality, and the indefatigable Villenas has both. “I love this,” she says. “I see my job as, I’m here to get us awake. My target is always the same: register everybody.”
Villenas moved to Houston from Mexico as a toddler, going through the naturalization process when she turned 21. Now a real estate agent in her forties, she’s long valued the right to franchise. “There is so much need in our community,” she says, “to be aware of the issues, to be critical about them, and to help mold the country.”
Three years ago, Villenas trained to register voters, which she does, several times a week, as Houston’s civic engagement lead for Mi Familia Vota, a national non-partisan organization that encourages political participation, principally among Latinos. In Texas, of course, that’s easier said than done. Of the state’s 16 million eligible citizens, 5.3 million went unregistered in 2012; only seven states had a worse rate. Because it’s not a competitive battleground, parties and PACs that bankroll registration drives elsewhere don’t bother to deploy scarce resources here.
Texas’s stringent voter identification law, the constitutionality of which is still being challenged in court, adds another barrier for the state’s estimated 600,000 residents, many black and Latino, who lack a required form of ID to cast a ballot. In his former role as state attorney general, Governor Greg Abbott helped usher through legislation that placed additional restrictions on those seeking to boost the depleted rolls—an effort, he said, to safeguard against voter fraud. Deputy registrars like Villenas can no longer enroll voters in counties where they aren’t personally registered, and all completed applications must be turned into the respective county office by hand, not through the mail.
Despite these challenges, Carlos Duarte, Mi Familia’s Texas state director, is optimistic about the 2016 election season. Outreach efforts have been bolstered, Duarte figures, by fear of a certain golden-haired presidential candidate with an affinity for border walls. “As opposed to other years where we have to twist people’s arms to register,” he says, “we actually engaged with them in a conversation.”
He points to the success the organization had signing up Houston-area voters during the Republican presidential debate on the UH campus this past February: 500 people in three days. The umbrella group, he explains, has plans to enlist 95,000 new voters across six states ahead of Election Day. Locally, in addition to canvassing colleges and high schools, Mi Familia will partner with Univision and Telemundo.
Fifteen minutes into her cafeteria rounds, Villenas continues to circulate cheerfully, undeterred. “Good morning, miss—are you registered to vote? … Hi sweetie, are you registered to vote? You are? Good for you!” Eventually, she sidles up to a Filipino-American student working on his biology homework. “It’ll only take a few minutes,” she assures him. The 19-year-old puts down his chopsticks, pulls out his driver’s license, and starts filling out the form.
Villenas helps him with the date, making sure every T is crossed. We ask if he’d ever thought about voting before. “I did,” he replies, receipt in hand, “but you know, the candidates weren’t looking too good this year.” So what changed his mind? “I guess, because it was right in front of my face?”