Waller County regis­tra­tion is­sues grow

Court­house de­liv­ery means ar­rest for field can­di­date’s di­rec­tor

Houston Chronicle - - CITY | STATE - By Jasper Scherer STAFF WRITER jasper.scherer@chron.com

A field di­rec­tor for Demo­cratic con­gres­sional can­di­date Mike Siegel was ar­rested at the Waller County Court­house Wed­nes­day af­ter he de­liv­ered a let­ter de­mand­ing the county up­date the sta­tus of stu­dents at a nearby col­lege whose regis­tra­tions were thrown into ques­tion the day be­fore.

Ja­cob Aronowitz, Siegel’s field di­rec­tor, was re­leased af­ter about two hours, ac­cord­ing to Lisa Seger, the Demo­cratic nom­i­nee for Texas House District 3, who ar­rived at the court­house af­ter the ar­rest.

The let­ter, ad­dressed to County Judge Trey Duhon and Elec­tions Ad­min­is­tra­tor Christy Ea­son, took is­sue with Ea­son’s de­ci­sion to re­quire the stu­dents fill out a “change in ad­dress” form to cor­rect the regis­tra­tion is­sue.

The ar­rest stemmed from Aronowitz’s de­ci­sion to take a photo of a clerk re­ceiv­ing the let­ter, ap­par­ently to con­firm it had been re­ceived, Siegel said in a phone in­ter­view. The clerk ob­jected to hav­ing her pic­ture taken and com­plained to a nearby bailiff, Siegel said.

“The bailiff then stopped Ja­cob as he was try­ing to exit the build­ing in the stair­way and ap­par­ently called the po­lice,” he said.

Aronowitz then called Siegel, who is an at­tor­ney. Siegel said he heard Aronowitz re­peat­edly ask why he was be­ing held and whether he was free to go. At one point, Aronowitz told a de­tain­ing of­fi­cer that his lawyer, Siegel, was run­ning for Congress.

“They say, what party is he from?’ ” Siegel said. “I don’t know why that was rel­e­vant.”

Though Aronowitz was re­leased, county of­fi­cials kept his phone, ac­cord­ing to Seger, the state House can­di­date.

Ea­son was not im­me­di­ately avail­able for com­ment. Calls placed to the Waller County Court­house were not an­swered.

Con­fu­sion arose Tues­day on the nearby cam­pus of Prairie View A&M Uni­ver­sity when it was dis­cov­ered that thou­sands of stu­dents could have reg­is­tered un­der the wrong ad­dress, putting their voter regis­tra­tions in jeop­ardy.

Tues­day was the last day to reg­is­ter for the No­vem­ber elec­tions.

The mixup stems partly from how stu­dents get their mail: Be­cause the uni­ver­sity does not have in­di­vid­ual mail­boxes for stu­dents on cam­pus, it pro­vides a sin­gle post of­fice box for ev­ery stu­dent.

In 2016, a group of uni­ver­sity of­fi­cials, the county and the lo­cal po­lit­i­cal par­ties agreed to have stu­dents write down 700 or 100 Uni­ver­sity Drive as their res­i­dence when reg­is­ter­ing to vote.

One of the ad­dresses is for the uni­ver­sity, the other for the cam­pus book­store.

In the March pri­mary elec­tion, how­ever, Ea­son no­ticed the 700 Uni­ver­sity Drive ad­dress puts stu­dents in the City Hall precinct, not the one on cam­pus. The of­fi­cials de­cided to let stu­dents vote at the wrong polling place — the one on cam­pus — but re­quired them to fill out a change in ad­dress form.

Ea­son said this would al­low the county to en­sure the stu­dents are sent to the right precinct in fu­ture elec­tions.

Waller County Demo­cratic Club Pres­i­dent and County Judge can­di­date Denise Mat­tox said she wor­ried the state­ment cards will cause too much con­fu­sion.

“The change of ad­dress cards won’t work. There’s hun­dreds of stu­dents reg­is­tered this way and that could mean long lines. It needs to be fixed,” Mat­tox said.

The let­ter was signed by Siegel, Seger, Mat­tox and Waller County Demo­cratic Party Chair Rosa Har­ris.

“We hereby de­mand that Waller County up­date its regis­tra­tions of any stu­dent cur­rently reg­is­tered at 100 or 700 Uni­ver­sity to re­flect that they are part of precinct 309,” the let­ter reads. “And fur­ther, we de­mand that Waller County re­quire no fur­ther doc­u­men­ta­tion of af­fected stu­dents.”

The let­ter goes on to say that the signees be­lieve the ac­tion is “ap­pro­pri­ate” be­cause the county “ad­vised stu­dents to use 100 or 700 Uni­ver­sity as their ‘Res­i­dence Ad­dress’ de­spite know­ing that those stu­dents ac­tu­ally resided on cam­pus, in precinct 309.”

“It was the ac­tions of the County which led to stu­dents be­ing reg­is­tered in the wrong precinct,” the let­ter says. “There­fore, the County should take im­me­di­ate steps to cor­rect the ef­fort re­sult­ing from its ac­tion…”

Waller County is 70.5 per­cent white, ac­cord­ing to Cen­sus data, while 82 per­cent of Prairie View A&M’s stu­dent body is black, uni­ver­sity data from spring 2018 show. The county voted 63 to 34 per­cent for Don­ald Trump over Hil­lary Clin­ton in 2016.

In a Twit­ter ex­change with Seger, Duhon, the county judge, wrote that he un­der­stood Waller County “does not have a good his­tory in this area.”

“But those of us in of­fice now are mak­ing ev­ery ef­fort to pro­tect the votes of PVAMU stu­dents,” Duhon con­tin­ued. “The right to vote is too pre­cious to be taken lightly.”

County of­fi­cials also re­futed an ap­par­ently false ru­mor, cir­cu­lated through a Face­book post, that claimed thou­sands of regis­tra­tions were de­stroyed or re­jected over the ad­dress is­sue.

Duhon, shot down the re­port on Face­book and wrote that Waller County’s Elec­tions Of­fice had worked with uni­ver­sity of­fi­cials and “lo­cal com­mu­nity lead­ers” for sev­eral months to ad­vise stu­dents of the is­sue and re­solve it.

Siegel, who is run­ning against Repub­li­can U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, said the ar­rest con­sti­tuted “an abuse of power.”

“There was no rea­son to ar­rest or de­tain (Aronowitz),” he said.

Prairie View A&M and the county have a fraught his­tory with voter regis­tra­tion is­sues. In a 1979 case that reached the U.S. Supreme Court, Prairie View stu­dents se­cured the right to vote on the col­lege cam­pus with­out filling out a res­i­dency ques­tion­nair.

Thir­teen years later, a grand jury in­dicted 14 stu­dents on vot­ing fraud charges that were later dropped, but prompted stu­dent marches. Then-state Sen. Rod­ney El­lis, a Hous­ton Demo­crat, asked the Jus­tice De­part­ment to in­ves­ti­gate the charges.

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