Prairie View vot­ing suit goes on

NAACP seeks last­ing re­lief; county de­nies restrict­ing stu­dents

The Dallas Morning News - - State - By BRI­ANNA STONE Austin Bureau bri­anna.stone@dal­las­news.com Twit­ter: @bri­an­nast­tone

AUSTIN — A voter sup­pres­sion law­suit filed against Waller County on be­half of Prairie View A&M stu­dents will con­tinue even though the county made a change to ex­tend hours for early vot­ing.

In late Oc­to­ber, the NAACP Le­gal De­fense and Ed­u­ca­tional Fund sued Waller County over lim­ited early-vot­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for stu­dents at the his­tor­i­cally black col­lege. The county re­sponded by ex­tend­ing hours for the sec­ond week of early vot­ing.

The NAACP fund’s deputy di­rec­tor of lit­i­ga­tion, Leah Aden, said the suit is con­tin­u­ing be­cause the county needs to be held ac­count­able and ad­mit that not set­ting up early-vot­ing lo­ca­tions dur­ing the first week re­stricted stu­dents’ ac­cess to the polls.

“LDF is seek­ing long term re­lief on the plain­tiffs’ be­half — specif­i­cally an ac­knowl­edge­ment of harm and for com­mu­nity in­volve­ment in the cre­ation of early vot­ing plans go­ing for­ward so they don’t have to go to court ev­ery time there is an elec­tion,” Aden said in an emailed state­ment.

In an email, Waller County Judge Trey Duhon said the county had com­plied with the law and was trans­par­ent in early-vot­ing de­ci­sion-mak­ing. He said that early vot­ing was orig­i­nally planned for both weeks but that county Demo­cratic chair­woman Rosa Har­ris asked that it be held only the sec­ond week so it didn’t con­flict with Prairie View’s home­com­ing, which was Oct. 21-27.

Har­ris could not be reached for com­ment.

“The Waller County Com­mis­sion­ers Court has a record of ac­tively en­gag­ing with the Prairie View A&M Com­mu­nity and its stu­dents, in­clud­ing plac­ing vot­ing boxes for stu­dents on cam­pus in the place where they eat, play, so­cial­ize and study, and did so prior to any threat of fed­eral in­ter­ven­tion,” Duhon wrote. “As to the al­le­ga­tions of voter dis­en­fran­chise­ment, Waller County will be vig­or­ously op­pos­ing those false al­le­ga­tions, and en­cour­ages all res­i­dents of Waller County to timely par­tic­i­pate in the meet­ings of the Waller County Com­mis­sion­ers Court when th­ese de­ci­sions are be­ing made as re­quired by law.”

He said county of­fi­cials did what they could to ac­com­mo­date all lo­cal cit­i­zens with the lim­ited re­sources of a small county.

At the time the suit was filed, the NAACP’S Aden said in a writ­ten state­ment: “Since at least the early 1970s, Waller County has con­sis­tently tried to limit the po­lit­i­cal power of black vot­ers in the City of Prairie View and at Prairie View A&M specif­i­cally by un­der­min­ing their right to vote. In keep­ing with this trou­bling pat­tern, Waller County of­fi­cials have re­fused to come close to pro­vid­ing the same num­ber of early-vot­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties as they have to non­black and non-stu­dent vot­ers be­fore next month’s elec­tion.”

In the 1970s, Prairie View stu­dents took Waller County to the U.S. Supreme Court be­cause the county re­quired stu­dents to fill out a res­i­den­tial ques­tion­naire to vote. At the time, the county was ma­jor­ity African-amer­i­can. The court ruled the re­quire­ment a con­sti­tu­tional vi­o­la­tion and gave the stu­dents the right to vote.

This year, the county north­west of Hous­ton was one of 35 ju­ris­dic­tions across the na­tion that the U.S. Jus­tice Depart­ment mon­i­tored on Elec­tion Day for com­pli­ance with fed­eral vot­ing rights laws.

March to the polls

In re­sponse to the al­le­ga­tions of voter sup­pres­sion and dis­en­fran­chise­ment, hun­dreds of Prairie View stu­dents marched to the polls to vote on Elec­tion Day and started the hash­tag #Wake­uppv on so­cial me­dia to en­cour­age stu­dents to be­come more civi­cally en­gaged and vote.

Ka­lynn Lakes, pres­i­dent of the NAACP stu­dent chap­ter at Prairie View, was one of the lead­ers of the march.

“I be­lieve Waller County knows that a lot of the voice of the county is right here in Prairie View, con­sid­er­ing how many stu­dents are on cam­pus,” he said. “I didn’t ex­pe­ri­ence any vot­ing prob­lems, but many stu­dents said they had dif­fi­cul­ties try­ing to vote and get reg­is­tered in the county. This is not an ac­ci­dent. This has been go­ing on way be­fore I came here. I’ve been hear­ing about this since I was young.”

Lakes, 21, has lived in Waller County his en­tire life. He said he be­lieves that the voter dis­en­fran­chise­ment is less about the fact that the stu­dent pop­u­la­tion is ma­jor­ity black and more about the fact that they are stu­dents and not nec­es­sar­ily per­ma­nent res­i­dents of the county.

“Whether I’m a stu­dent liv­ing here for four or five years or a per­ma­nent res­i­dent, it doesn’t mean my voice doesn’t count,” he said.

March­ing along­side the stu­dents were Prairie View Pres­i­dent Ruth Sim­mons and Mike Siegel, a con­gres­sional can­di­date who was vo­cal about pro­tect­ing the stu­dents’ vot­ing rights. He lost his race to un­seat Austin Repub­li­can Rep. Michael Mc­caul in the 10th Dis­trict.

“Great at­mos­phere as stu­dents stand up for their rights,” Siegel tweeted on Elec­tion Day from the march.

Other vot­ing is­sues

One of Siegel’s field di­rec­tors was ar­rested in Waller County in early Oc­to­ber af­ter stand­ing up for thou­sands of Prairie View stu­dents whose voter reg­is­tra­tions were be­ing ques­tioned by the county.

The day be­fore the dead­line to reg­is­ter, county Elec­tions Ad­min­is­tra­tor Christy Ea­son said stu­dents needed to fill out change-of-ad­dress forms with their dorm ad­dresses, be­cause the ad­dress county of­fi­cials had told stu­dents to use was out­side the vot­ing precinct.

She said that the process needed to be com­pleted be­fore Elec­tion Day but that no one would be de­nied the right to vote.

On Oct. 12, Duhon and Ea­son changed course, re­leas­ing a state­ment that said all stu­dents would be al­lowed to vote in their precinct even if they didn’t com­plete the change-ofad­dress forms.

“Stu­dents that re­side on cam­pus that have reg­is­tered to vote will ab­so­lutely be given EV­ERY op­por­tu­nity to cast their bal­lot dur­ing the Gen­eral Elec­tion with the least amount of de­lay and in­con­ve­nience hu­manly pos­si­ble,” they said in the state­ment. “Waller County has made ev­ery ef­fort to pro­tect the stu­dent’s abil­ity to vote. That is just the truth.”

Todd Spoth/new York Times

Prairie View A&M stu­dent Da­mon John­son voted on cam­pus on Oct. 30. Waller County said it lim­ited cam­pus early vot­ing at the re­quest of the county Demo­cratic chair.

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