HOUSTON (CN) — For decades, battles over voting rights have essentially been part of the curriculum for students at Prairie View A&M University, a historically Black college in Texas. They are receiving another lesson now in a trial fighting for early voting to be made a fixture on campus.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s Oct. 1 order limiting ballot drop-off sites to one per county, upheld late Monday by the Fifth Circuit, is the latest in a series of measures the state’s Republican leaders have taken in the name of protecting elections from voting fraud. Democrats say it is nothing but another GOP ploy to disenfranchise Democratic-leaning minorities.
Such skirmishes are all too familiar for students of Prairie View A&M University, whose bucolic campus in Waller County is just 50 miles from Houston but seemingly in a different world from the big city and its gridlocked freeways.
Many of its students do not have cars. They get to classes on foot or by campus shuttle bus, which runs along Sandra Bland Parkway, named for a famous alumni, and catch up with friends, do study groups and eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at the Memorial Student Center.
The student center is at the heart of a voting rights lawsuit several students filed against Waller County and county officials in October 2018.
PVAMU is the state’s oldest historically Black university, founded in the town of Prairie View in 1876 by an act of the Texas Legislature, on a former slave plantation called Alta Vista.
Come late October, PVAMU’s purple-and-gold colors take over the small town as 40,000 to 60,000 people drive in for the university’s football homecoming week.
Front yards and pastures fringing the campus are turned into parking lots where alumni pull out lawn chairs and grills, cooking meat and enjoying the comradery, before heading to campus for the big game.
It is a place where school pride has a deeper meaning due to its history, as Priscilla Barbour, the school’s student government president in 2013 and 2014, testified on Sept. 29.
“A place that once enslaved Black people now educates them to become the top engineers, nurses, attorneys, architects, teachers in the country,” she said.
Students claim in the lawsuit Waller County’s decision not to put any polling places on campus, or anywhere in Prairie View, for the first week of early voting in October 2018 violated their civil rights. They are represented by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and attorneys from Norton Rose Fulbright’s Houston office.
Two days after PVAMU students filed suit on Oct. 22, 2018, the Waller County Commissioners Court, the county’s elected executive board, changed the early voting schedule, adding nine hours in the second week at the Memorial Student Center and five hours in the first week at Prairie View City Hall.
At a commissioners court meeting before the lawsuit was filed, Christy Eason and Carbett Duhon, the county’s elections administrator and chief executive, who are both white, said they agreed the original early voting schedule was unfair to PVAMU students because other cities in the county, most of them majority white, had much more early voting hours.
Eason and Duhon both made proposals to add more early voting in Prairie View, both of which were voted down, and said to avoid further controversy representatives from the university should be included in planning of early voting schedules.
Despite their efforts to appease PVAMU students, Eason and Duhon were named defendants in the lawsuit.
Over two weeks of a bench trial conducted via videoconference, county officials have testified they set early voting schedules based on recommendations from the county’s Democratic and Republican Party chairs.