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.
They said Prairie View had no early voting for the first week because Democratic Party Chair Rosa Harris did not want it. The university celebrated homecoming that week and Harris believed it would be too hard to find parking for Prairie View residents to come to campus to vote.
While the current controversy may seem overblown, the plaintiffs believe it is another chapter in Waller County’s long history of trying to stop PVAMU students from voting.
After passage of the 26th Amendment in 1971 lowered the voting age to 18, Waller County said PVAMU students could not vote unless they proved they planned to live in the county after they graduated, or their families owned property in the county.
The U.S. attorney general sued the county and Texas, and in 1979 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ruling granting PVAMU students the right to vote without filling out a residency questionnaire.
Thirteen years later, a Waller County district attorney charged 19 PVAMU students for “illegally voting.” The charges were dropped after protests from students and civil rights activists and a Justice Department inquiry.
In 2003, after two PVAMU students announced they planned to run for county office, former Waller County DA Oliver Kitzman threatened to prosecute PVAMU students for voting if they did not meet his residency standards. He backed down after students filed a federal lawsuit and hundreds of them marched in protest.
“Waller County has become, over the past 48 years, perhaps the most difficult place for a Black student to vote in Texas,” wrote Peniel Joseph, a Black professor of history and government affairs at University of Texas at Austin, in a report commissioned by the plaintiffs in the latest lawsuit.
Despite that history, two Black officials who are Prairie View residents testified for the defense last week they don’t think it’s fair for the citizens of Prairie View, 90% of whom are Black, to have to go to the Memorial Student Center to vote because many of them are elderly.
They said the Waller County Community Center, in Prairie View and on the edge of the university’s campus, is a good compromise polling site for students and residents.
Some students claim the community center is too far for those who live in dorms on the opposite side of campus, who would have to walk 2 miles roundtrip.
Jeron Barnett is the only African American on the Waller County Commissioners Court, to which he was elected in 2012. His precinct includes PVAMU and the city of Prairie View. He was the city’s police chief from 2009 to 2012.
He said his daughter attends PVAMU and lives on campus and he has no concerns about her getting to the community center to vote.
“I think it’s very important to understand when it comes to voting the polling place is not just going to be placed in our laps,” he testified last Thursday.
Barnett, who grew up in Los Angeles, said his wife was born and raised in Prairie View, where her ancestors were enslaved on a plantation.
Her great-great-great-great grandfather was one of the first students at PVAMU before he was elected a state representative in the late 1800s, Barnett said.
He said the lawsuit is very aggravating because it insinuates that he as a Black man voted to approve an early voting schedule that impeded the voting rights of Black college students.
“It’s a lie,” Barnett said. “I believe it’s individuals that are trying to make intelligent young black people, who are becoming very well educated, adding to the society, trying to make us all look like victims.”
For years, Texas and Waller County, like other states and counites with histories of voting discrimination, had to get the Justice Department’s permission for any election law changes under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. But a 5-4 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 found the preclearance regime unenforceable.
PVAMU students are asking in their latest lawsuit for U.S. District Judge Charles Eskridge to order Waller County to give Prairie View and PVAMU the same early voting hours as other Waller County cities.
They also want Eskridge to force the county to preclear any voting law changes with him or the Justice Department under Section 3(c) of the Voting Rights Act.
University of Texas at Austin law professor Joseph Fishkin said it is difficult to convince federal judges to do this.
“There have been a number of examples of preclearance being imposed by courts under 3(c) but I don’t think there are many, if any, examples of this happening post-Shelby County in jurisdictions formerly covered by Section 5. So we don’t yet know exactly how high the bar will be set,” he said in an email.
“What I can say is this: if any state is going to be covered in its entirety under Section 3(c), it would probably be Texas,” Fishkin added. “And if any county within Texas is going to be covered, there are a few in contention but I think perhaps the strongest case in the whole state is Waller County. … That’s because history matters here … not just current conduct.”
Closing arguments are set for later this week.