Of the more than 18 million Texans who are eligible to vote, only about a quarter cast ballots in last November’s gubernatorial election. As often happens during election season, a majority of Texans stayed home. These nonvoters share a few things in common: they are generally less affluent and less educated than people who do vote, and they are more likely to belong to an ethnic or racial minority. But perhaps their most striking characteristic is their youth. In the last presidential election, 24- to 34-year-olds made up just 12.4 percent of actual voters in Texas; 18- to 23-year-olds were a paltry 6.3 percent. The absence of millennials from the democratic process is particularly conspicuous when one considers that Texas is the second-youngest state in the country, behind only Utah.

Fifty years after the Voting Rights Act, why are younger Texans not voting in greater numbers? This spring, I spoke to a number of them in the Rio Grande Valley, where only two out of every ten eligible voters participate in general elections. The Valley’s demographics closely mirror those of nonvoters: the area’s population is roughly 90 percent Hispanic and is among the youngest and poorest in the state. The Valley also lacks competitive political races, which gives people fewer reasons to go to the polls. “Hidalgo County has never elected a Republican to a countywide office,” said Jerry Polinard, a longtime political science professor at the University of Texas–Pan American, in Edinburg. “So once a candidate wins the Democratic primary, the general election is pretty much over, for all practical purposes. That really depresses voter turnout.”

In interviews with undergrads in Polinard’s honors class and with students from nearby McAllen High School, I asked several basic questions about voting and the electoral process. Of the dozens who participated, few had heard of the Voting Rights Act, and none could tell me what it had set out to change. None could recall hearing stories from older relatives about discrimination they had faced at the polls, though nearly everyone I spoke with belonged to a racial or ethnic minority. Only a handful understood what the voter ID law was, exactly, though many of the UT–Pan Am students knew that their state-issued college identification cards would not be considered sufficient proof of their identity at the polls, thanks to recent action from the Legislature. Only half of them were registered, or planned to register, to vote.

Still, these seventeen- to twenty-year-olds hardly fit the stereotype of apathetic, uninformed millennials. The reasons they cited for not going to the ballot box were complicated, ranging from their immigration status to the failure of election procedures to adapt to the digital age. As for those who did plan to participate, a number spoke of their pride in the democratic process and their eagerness to cast their first vote. Here are a few of their thoughts. —Photographs by Joel Salcido  

Sienna Gil, 18

In my family, we’re not big on politics. We’ll talk about it here and there, but voting is not something that I feel like I need to do.

Ruby Vanaye, 20

I live here, I study here, I work here. I do everything here. But I can’t vote. I can vote in Mexico, but my vote doesn’t count there because the system is corrupt. 

Adi Tantravahi, 17

A lot of young people on Tumblr and Twitter say they don’t vote, but they’ll go on these crazy rants about a political or social issue they believe in. And you just want to say, “If you care so much, why don’t you vote instead of complaining online where two people are going to read it?” 

Mayela Saldivar, 20

You know how we have Amber Alerts? What if everyone got an Election Day alert sent to their phone? It could have a link to a list of polling places so everyone would know where to go.

David Marchese, 18

I remember my grandpa bringing me into the voting booth in 2004, during the Bush versus Kerry election. He was an American history teacher, and he told me that democracy demands the most out of its citizens because everyone has to be informed. He said to vote only if you know what the platforms are for both candidates, because you’re making a decision that affects the entire country. I registered to vote last December, and I plan to vote as long as I’m informed.

Vanessa Sanchez, 19

I use Twitter a lot, and I noticed when the different presidential candidates announced they were running, they didn’t get much of a reaction there. But when Hillary Clinton announced on YouTube that she was running for president, there was a huge response from people who are in my generation. We’re always on YouTube, so that went over really well. Politicians usually don’t try very hard to reach out to millennials. 

Lizette Peña, 19

Both of my parents are from Mexico. My dad got residency a long time ago, but my mom didn’t have citizenship until 2008. When I was growing up, they didn’t vote because they were afraid the government was going to come after them and take away their residency. I think most people who come here from Mexico or Central America don’t get involved because they’re afraid something will happen to them.

Erica Valdes, 19

A lot of people in the Valley don’t feel like their vote counts. Down here, we’re super-blue, but the rest of the state is so red, so it really feels like whether we vote or not doesn’t matter.

Katrina Sankar, 18

I believe politicians eventually become crooks. They may start off with good intentions, but after a certain period of time their power gets to their head, and they use it to protect themselves rather than the people. 

Marien Alvarado, 17

I’d be more likely to vote if politicians talked about subjects that matter to me. I’m someone who fully supports gay marriage. We often have discussions about it in my house.

Destinee López, 17

A lot of people are cynical and say, “What’s the point of voting? It’s not going to do anything.”

Arlene Bocanegra, 17

I’m voting for Hillary. It’s not just because she could be the first female president. My beliefs are aligned with hers too. Still, the gender gap is really prominent in this country, and that’s one of the main reasons I really want to vote for her.

Cherish Varlack, 18

In my family, people vote Republican one year and Democrat the next. It depends on the issues. I think I’ll be that way too, though I don’t know very much about each side yet. I just know their opinions on the big things, like abortion and gay rights.

Leslie Sánchez, 18

Growing up, my mother always took me with her to vote, whether the election was for the school board or the president. Even as a child, she made me feel respect and reverence for the whole thing. She would tell me, “Leslie, you must remain quiet. Stay by my side, and respect the other people who are voting. Don’t look to see who people are voting for—it’s against the law. And don’t ask them how they voted.” 

Mimosa Thomas, 19

What would make a big difference is if we had same-day voter registration. A lot of states allow you to register on Election Day, but Texas insists that you have to register thirty days before the election. Well, nobody’s thinking about the election a month ahead of time. Plus, you still can’t register online; you have to get a form, fill it out, find a stamp, and mail it in to the Texas Secretary of State. If you could just get online and do it—if whenever you scrolled through Twitter you saw a tweet that said, “Register to vote by clicking on this link”—everyone I know would be registered. But I don’t think our lawmakers want that. They don’t want to make it easy for college students to get involved.

Christopher Lopez, 18

I registered to vote because I wanted to have a say in our school bond election. I think we need to modernize our schools and update them for the twenty-first century. I wanted my opinion to count.

Andrea Sánchez, 19

I can’t register to vote because I’m not a citizen. It’s unfair, because we pay so many taxes and it’s a lot of money. I want to have a voice and be involved, but I can’t.

Yulissa Garcia, 18

When it’s election time in Mexico, there’s nothing else on TV except for that: debates, political commercials, election news, updates on the voting. It’s very different from here.

Emily Cole, 19

Election Day should be a national holiday. People should be able to take off work, because as it is, people have to leave work in order to go vote, and a lot of people don’t have the types of jobs where they can leave for an hour or two.

Frida Castro, 18

What I noticed once I moved to the U.S. is that people don’t talk about politics as much here. In Mexico, everybody is super-involved. They know where they need to go to vote, they know all the candidates, they know their positions. You can ask any of your neighbors, or a child, questions about a politician and they will be informed.

Juan Alonso, 18

My family, we’re Mexican, so I focus on Mexican politics more. I’m not that informed about what’s going on here. So I know my vote is important, but right now, I’m not using it.

Danielle Carreon, 18

Some of my family members don’t have Social Security numbers, so they can’t vote. Language is an issue for them too. Me personally, I don’t think I’ll be ready by the time the presidential election comes around. I don’t have enough knowledge. I don’t want to vote and then later regret it because of the outcome.