Will Waller County guard or continue to block students’ voting rights?

by Royce West
Texas Senate

For the second time this month, the eyes of Texas and particularly voting rights advocates, have been drawn to the campus of Prairie View A&M University. Prairie View A&M is in Prairie View, Texas, one of several towns in Waller County, located about an hour’s drive west of Houston.

Two weeks ago, Texas Secretary of State Rolando Pablos had to intervene following a complaint by candidate for U.S. Congress Mike Siegel, that decisions made by Waller County officials would cause election-day delays and confusion, or even worse for Prairie View students.

Prairie View’s dormitories do not have an official mailing address. Reports say that a 2016 plan agreed to by school and county officials and the local political parties, instructed Prairie View students to choose between two addresses as their place of residence to complete voter registration forms. During the March 2018 primaries, Waller County Elections Administrator Christy Eason found that one of the dedicated addresses was outside the voting precinct that covers the Prairie View campus. Prairie View students were still allowed to vote on campus, but only after completing a change of address form on site.

Siegel, who is running against incumbent Congressman Michael McCall, issued a letter to county officials demanding the elections department to fix the address and precinct mix-up themselves, rather than placing election-day burdens on students. After an incident which led to the arrest of a Siegel campaign worker, Pablos arranged a conference call with Waller County, local party officials and Siegel. A joint statement was issued, saying that students’ voting rights will not be “impeded, hampered or otherwise delayed” and Pablos promised to have state elections department personnel on sight at the Prairie View campus polling place. Change of address updates can be filled out after ballots are cast.

Then on Monday, Oct. 22, a suit was filed by five Prairie View students, asking for the courts to intervene regarding the county’s plan that they say limits on-campus, early voting opportunities. Monday, Oct. 22 was the first day of early voting, but under the county’s plan, the campus polling site will not open for early voting until the second week, starting Monday, Oct. 29. On Thursday, Nov. 1, the campus’ early voting site closes and moves to a location that’s less frequented by students – many who do not have transportation – to an off-campus location a mile away. Early voting is not scheduled on-campus over the weekend, but is available at other locations around the county.

The students charge Waller County Commissioners, the Waller County Judge and Eason with acting to suppress the Black student vote. They allege equal protection violations under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and the 14th and 15th Amendments, as well as age discrimination under the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Their arguments continue that Prairie View A&M students and City of Prairie View residents have fewer chances to early vote than residents of surrounding towns like Waller, Hempstead, Brookshire and Katy, even though more people live in Prairie View, which also has a younger voting age population.

Prairie View has a larger percentage of Black and Hispanic residents compared to other Waller County cities which all have majority, White populations. Plaintiffs also charge that the early voting plan was devised without input from Prairie View students or campus officials or that of Prairie View’s City Council.

Numerous accounts, in addition to the complaint, cite Waller County’s long history of voting rights problems dating back to at least 1971, when the county tax assessor and voter registrar barred students from voting unless their families owned property in Waller County. And as recently as 2008, the courts intervened when Waller County sought to limit the number of voter registrations that could be submitted by volunteer voter registrars.

On Sept 22, Waller County’s commissioners adopted the early voting plan, and in October, by a 3-2 vote, refused modifications, including recommendations by County Judge “Trey” Duhon and the elections administrator, that would have at least lessened voting access problems, if not eliminate them. Even if the Prairie View students are successful in court, damage has already been done. Early voting has already begun and with it, opportunities missed and rights violated. My question is what can be done to enforce voting rights in Waller County? In their case, it seems as if the fox is guarding the hen house.