Claudia Yoli Ferla can’t vote herself.
But, by registering and educating others, the 28-year-old immigrant and El Pasoan has helped thousands of fellow Texans gain access to the polls, despite the blot of voter suppression in her state.
Now – as Republican lawmakers push reforms that would subject constituents to even more barriers at the ballot box – Yoli Ferla is seeking to fight back by empowering a powerful bloc of young voters who could transform Texas’s political future.
“I cannot wait til the day that I get to cast a ballot,” she told the Guardian. “But I know that that moment will only come with the continued organizing of young people on the ground, demanding systematic change not only from Congress, but also our state leaders.”
As the incoming executive director at Move Texas, a non-partisan, youth-focused civic engagement non-profit, Yoli Ferla wants to use her platform to uplift the voices, stories and lived experiences of other young people, trying to turn first-time voters into lifetime organizers.
Young Texans are far from a monolith ideologically: 72% of Latino voters ages 18-29 supported Joe Biden in 2020, while 51% of their white counterparts swung for Donald Trump.
But overall, a strong majority of the state’s youth backed the Democratic presidential nominee last year, signaling a changing of the guard that could help liberals turn Texas blue – if only enough young voters are able to exercise their right.
“Our generation has historically, and will continue to be, disenfranchised by our very own democracy,” Yoli Ferla said.
Originally from Venezuela, Yoli Ferla immigrated with her mom to El Paso as a child. She grew up undocumented, then eventually won protection through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (Daca) program, which shields her from deportation but does not provide a pathway to citizenship or representation.
Meanwhile, in the predominantly Latino border city where she was raised, she learned how marginalized communities, including her own family, have been disproportionately hurt by Texas’s hard-line voter restrictions.
From strict ID requirements to no same-day registration and extremely limited vote-by-mail or online registration, Texas is known as one of the hardest places to cast a ballot nationwide. It’s no wonder that the state has chronically low voter turnout, compared with much of the country.
“Texas, you know, is now a leader in that anti-democratic, anti-voting fight,” Yoli Ferla said.
In recent days, Texas electoral politics have left much of the nation aghast after state lawmakers advanced highly contentious bills, directly targeting many of the innovations that successfully expanded voting access amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The legislation would do away with drive-in voting locations, allow partisan poll watchers to record voters, and limit mail-in voting, among other provisions.
“We want a system that people can trust, we want it to be accurate, and we want folks to know that it’s accurate,” said Texas state senator Bryan Hughes, leaning into a specious myth about voter fraud fueling Trump’s defeat.
“If folks don’t trust the system, they’re not going to vote.”
The sweeping restrictions are taking up a lot of air, even as roughly 48,000 Texans have died from Covid-19 and residents continue to build back after a devastating winter storm that left millions without power or water mere months ago.
Legislators should be focused on “bigger problems”, Yoli Ferla said, “like addressing the ongoing pandemic, addressing the climate crisis, ensuring that we’re working towards immigration reform and uprooting our criminal justice system”.
“But instead,” she said, “they choose to engage in a fight centered on unicorns and fairy tales”.
As conservatives’ ironclad grasp on Texas shows some signs of weakness, Yoli Ferla believes politicians who are anti-democratic see the writing on the wall: they’re not going to be able to win on the issues anymore, so they’re shifting the goalpost.
“It couldn’t be more clear that the number one priority in their playbook is to suppress our power,” she said.
Yoli Ferla envisions a Texas where officials and policies reflect the increasingly diverse constituencies they represent – an ambition that relies on a more engaged electorate.
That means she’s got a lot of work to do. But she already knows how to build strong relationships, a secret weapon of hers in the fight to drum up civic engagement.
She remembers working on a student voter initiative, where she met a young man who had just turned 18. The program helped him register to vote, but it also got him excited about his local democracy, and he went on years later to work as the field director for a first-time candidate in El Paso.
She knows “that his story is not an isolated one”.
“When we get young people to have this conversation, to engage in this conversation,” Yoli Ferla said, “when we give ’em an opportunity to really share their story, when we give ’em an opportunity to understand how these issues intersect with their very basic civic duty, which is to vote – I think the lines start to connect.”
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