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2020 Elections

Prairie View A&M at the forefront fighting against voter suppression

Students are leading the fight in court along with NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund attorneys

HOUSTON – With the Nov. 3 presidential election rapidly approaching, Prairie View A&M University students, who for decades have opposed Waller County, Texas, voter suppression efforts, were in court this month alleging county officials’ early-voting schedule violated the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act.

Prairie View A&M students and alumni, who included Jayla Allen, Damon Johnson and Treasure Smith, sued Waller County in 2018, alleging it violated their civil rights. The federal lawsuit alleged the county was making it easier for “non-Black” and “non-student voters” to have better access to early voting sites than Prairie View A&M students.

Even after the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF) filed the federal lawsuit resulting in a trial, county officials chose not to increase on-campus early voting at Prairie View A&M for any elections, including the election Tuesday between President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden that will greatly impact Black voters.

In essence, the number of voting days was split along racial lines: The city of Prairie View is about 80% Black, Waller County is about 70% white.

The two-week trial heard closing arguments on Oct. 15, and was presided over by U.S. District Judge Charles Eskridge, who was appointed to the federal bench by Trump in 2019. Eskridge encouraged the plaintiffs and the defense team representing Waller County to reach a settlement. No settlement is expected before Tuesday’s election.

“I feel like this case is a microcosm of what more people are seeing about our country and the ways in which Black people and people of color view systematic racism very differently from the white majority,” said NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund deputy director of litigation Leah Aden, who represented the plaintiffs at a virtual trial conducted via Zoom due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“You can’t look at decision-making in the present without looking at how we got there. A lot of times [white] people are like, ‘It was a long time ago. I had nothing to do with it. Maybe it was my grandfather or great-grandfather, but it had nothing to do with me.’ But the people who hold office are the direct beneficiaries of the past decisions of their ancestors, which harmed us,” said Aden. “They’re also making decisions today that are maybe not explicitly racist, but they are in fact racist because of the results, or because of the intent.

“The other thing that makes this case so unique is these are 18-, 19- and 20-year-old students. This is the first experience they have to vote. When you go to Prairie View, voting is something that you have to work really hard to do, because Waller County makes it hard for you. They’re not doing that at Texas A&M, where they have two polling places on campus for majority-white students. You learn when you go to Prairie View that part of your legacy is voter suppression. And while there’s a sense of pride in that because people have fought back, there’s also something really sad, because it’s supposed to be on the same level playing field as the Texas A&M’s.

“Frankly, we’ve seen this before. This is like the 1950s and ’60s,” Aden said. “Making Black people count jelly beans and recite the Constitution to be able to vote. It’s the modern form of making it so difficult that it’s exclusion. That’s what Prairie View students have experienced, decade after decade.”

Unfortunately, the struggle for students at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to vote on campus, not just at Prairie View A&M, is real.

Different tactic used against N.C. A&T

Students at North Carolina A&T in Greensboro, the largest HBCU in the nation with an enrollment of nearly 13,000, joined forces in March 2019 to challenge a congressional map in place for the 2016 and 2018 elections created by Republicans that unfairly divided the state university. Students said the political tactic, known as “cracking,” weakened the voting strength of the Democratic majority by dividing the campus into two districts. The dividing line ran north and south, with the western half of campus located in the 13th District and the eastern half of campus in the 6th District.

In response, the student government association’s political action committee created an online petition circulated on Twitter and Instagram known as the #LetAggiesVote campaign, calling for the addition of an early-voting site on campus.

A New Yorker story revealed that then-Republican strategist Thomas Hofeller helped gerrymander the racial makeup, voting patterns and residence halls of more than 1,000 N.C. A&T students to create political maps, drawing the ire of students and school officials.

Ultimately, thanks to a lawsuit filed by the National Redistricting Foundation, a nonprofit connected to former Barack Obama attorney general Eric Holder that sought to change the congressional districts in time for the 2020 elections, three judges ruled the state’s legislative maps violated the state’s constitution. It was a big win for N.C. A&T students and strengthened the position of voting rights and their argument that gerrymandering, the process of drawing district maps to favor a party or politician, unfairly allows lawmakers to select voters.

And at Florida A&M, in the state capital of Tallahassee, students now embrace early voting on campus leading up to the 2020 election. It didn’t occur without a fight. However, unlike Prairie View A&M and North Carolina A&T, Florida A&M was able to join forces with other colleges in Tallahassee to obtain on-campus early voting.

In 2018, despite a federal judge ruling that early voting sites on Florida college campuses were legal, Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley, citing difficulty in securing facilities, obtaining the necessary equipment and a lack of training, decided against providing early-voting sites on campuses for the fall early election.

Earley relented in the face of intense pressure from Florida State, Florida A&M and Tallahassee Community College and reversed his decision to not set up early-voting sites on college campuses for the 2018 November general election. Florida A&M students who voted at an off-campus location in 2018 can now participate in early voting at a single location on campus through Nov. 1.

Always a struggle for equal rights

At Prairie View A&M, the challenge for students to vote on campus without facing obstacles is never-ending.

In 1992, nearly three decades after the Voting Rights Act was passed and the ratification of the 26th Amendment lowering the voting age to 18, more than a dozen Prairie View A&M students were charged with improperly voting. Charges were dropped when the media got wind of it.

“What we’ve seen since the 1970s is this targeting of Prairie View A&M students, first by saying you don’t really live here because you’re just a student,” Aden said. “So you had to fill out a questionnaire that proves you actually are a resident. Or, you’re going to vote and then after you vote they’re going to investigate you for voter fraud and then indict you. The questionnaire went all the way up to the Supreme Court [in 1979]. The Supreme Court said you can vote where you go to school. Every college student who can vote today owes it to the people of Prairie View who challenged the questioning of their right to vote where they go to school. The voter suppression they experienced led to a gift to the rest of the nation.”

In 2013, students fought and receive one on-campus voting site at Prairie View A&M, but Waller County officials attempted to eliminate the use of that site in 2016. The county successfully limited the on-campus polling location for 2018 midterm elections where students represented nearly one-fifth of the county’s 33,000 registered voters but received fewer than half the early-voting days as three nearby predominantly white cities.

From left to right: NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund attorney Steven Lance, Prairie View alumna and plaintiff Jayla Allen, LDF deputy director of litigation Leah Aden and LDF attorney John Cusick.

The October trial was only the latest attempt by students at Prairie View A&M to secure the right some college students in America take for granted. To truly understand the obstacles that prevent these students from voting on campus, one must first understand the racist history of Waller County and its acrimonious relationship with its Black citizens.

Prairie View A&M was founded 144 years ago on parts of the former Alta Vista slave plantation to help freed slaves enter the workforce through engineering and nursing programs. At the time, Waller County was considered a center for slavery and cotton production.

“Over the next 75 years, Waller County would be the site of among the highest numbers of lynchings of all the counties in the state of Texas,” writes Peniel E. Joseph, a professor of public affairs and history at the University of Texas at Austin who testified as an expert witness at the trial on behalf of the plaintiffs.

“Today,” writes Joseph, “Waller County continues to make national headlines for divisive racial politics connected to race, democracy and citizenship. As of 2007, the city of Hempstead in Waller County still had separate cemeteries for Black and white residents – and, according to the plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit, the city neglected the upkeep of the historically Black cemeteries.

“The 2015 death of Sandra Bland, a Prairie View A&M alumna who was pulled over and incarcerated after a routine traffic stop turned combative, has made Waller County synonymous with racial intolerance and has associated it with some of the worst chapters of the nation’s history. Waller County’s deeply entrenched history of racial division provides the context for Bland’s death.”

Waller County sits on the northwest border of Harris County, about 50 miles from Houston. Prairie View A&M is the only college or university in Waller County. The student population mirrors the demographics of the city of Prairie View – 80% of the voting-age population is Black with 54% between ages 18 and 20. The overall population of Waller County is 52% white with 14% between ages 18 and 20.

Sixty-four percent of students participated in early voting for the March 2018 primary compared with 43% countywide.

The city of Prairie View provides no public transportation, and many students on campus don’t own cars, making travel around the county difficult. The university offers a shuttle that stops at the on-campus Memorial Student Center, but the route doesn’t extend to the off campus Waller County Community Center, where early voting is more readily available.

Prairie View A&M University students walk outside the school’s student center.

Todd Spoth / The New York Times

Plaintiff Allen, who graduated from Prairie View A&M in 2019, testified at the trial that students pushed back after early voting at the Memorial Student Center was reduced from two weeks to only two 12-hour days during the second week of early voting. Students received no on-campus voting opportunities during the first week and no on-campus weekend hours.

“If you look at the data of all the places that Black people vote in the county, the student center is where most people vote,” Aden said. “Around 2013, the students started to push and say we want voting on campus because there’s a student center in the middle of campus that thousands of students walk through every day. If you want to capture young people and votes, this is where you go. What the county is trying to do is limit the place where most people vote. And, particularly, where most students vote and make it difficult for them to access it by limiting the amount of days and hours they can use it.

“The county understands that if the student population, which makes up the majority of the city and the Black population is empowered [through voting], the county would be represented by different-looking people and have different policy outcomes. They know that if they empower the students, and obviously more people in the city of Prairie View are Black, they wouldn’t have the same level of [political] power.”

During the trial, Waller County Judge Carbett “Trey” J. Duhon III, a defendant along with Waller County elections administrator Christy Eason, attempted to explain the county’s position in limiting early-voting hours at the student center.

“I think the plaintiffs got out over their skis because I believe the truth is we tried to expand voting on campus; we’ve demonstrated and done that,” said Duhon, who helped determine early-voting hours. “So any suggestion that we’re trying to take away or disenfranchise or put any impediment in the way of these students being able to vote is simply not true. It’s offensive to me.”

Duhon, who is white, acknowledged Waller County’s racist past. However, he explained that unflattering history didn’t factor into the county’s decision to limit early-voting hours at the centrally-located student center.

“I don’t have a connection to the history of Waller County,” Duhon said. “I understand the history. I understand the perception is there. But when do you actually get out from under that cloud? I can spend hours on campus, and then one media outlet puts out one story that starts off, ‘Waller County, with its racist history, is trying to keep students from voting.’ And it destroys everything I worked for. I understand the students want it to be right there. It’s convenient. I don’t fault them for asking for it. But I also cannot give them what nobody else in this county gets.”

Aden vehemently disagreed.

“Prairie View students fought to get early voting at the student center,” she said. “And ever since they won that fight, the county has either tried to eliminate the site entirely, or our lawsuit is about ever since 2018 they’ve basically given the students far less hours to vote than other parts of the county. Students have to go out of their way to squeeze in voting while other people get sometimes two full weeks of early voting. Prairie View students, particularly in their first and second year, stay on campus all the time. There are a lot of Prairie View students who are first-generation. We had an SGA president who described some kids who come to school with literally their clothes in a garbage bag. They come with nothing. They don’t have cars. When they’re on campus, they have to use their legs to get around.”

John Harris is a writer, author, editor and digital journalist who has worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer, St. Petersburg Times, Fort Worth Star-Telegram and Hunt Scanlon Media. He is co-authoring Pro Football Hall of Famer Edgerrin James' autobiography, From Gold Teeth to Gold Jacket.