Prairie View voting suit goes on
NAACP seeks lasting relief; county denies restricting students
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.”
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.