Fighting to exercise their right to vote has become a rite of passage for students at Prairie View A&M University in Prairie View, Texas.
Texas’s oldest public historically Black university is in the middle of predominantly white and rural Waller County, northwest of Houston. And for as long as Black people there have had the right to vote, students say, county officials have been making it hard for them to do so. In 1971, Waller County’s registrar banned students from voting unless they or their families owned property there. In 1992, the county’s prosecutor indicted students for allegedly voting illegally and only dropped the charges after the Justice Department came to town. That happened again in 2003, when a Prairie View student was running for county office.
Now, they are fighting again after county officials removed access to early voting on campus but left it available elsewhere in the county. Until Friday, the students were hoping a decision would come down in time to install an early voting polling place on campus. It hasn’t — so now, students say, they are fighting for those who come after them.
“I am a third-generation graduate of the university. My grandfather started the legacy. My parents went. My siblings and cousins have gone. Growing up, I heard about them marching and protesting for voting rights at Prairie View, ” said Jayla Allen, who graduated from the university in 2019 with a degree in political science and is the lead plaintiff in the current voting rights lawsuit against Waller County. "The County of Waller has made it harder, and they continue to make it harder for Prairie View students to cast their ballots. We're fighting for fair and equal access to the polls — that has been the fight for half a century.”
Allen’s battle started during the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections, when the Waller County Commissioners Court passed an early voting calendar that provided voters in the 90% Black town of Prairie View with fewer early voting hours than in other, whiter parts of the county.
The nearby predominantly white town of Waller — which has fewer voters than the college — was afforded 11 days of early voting. Students were given three days of early voting at the student center and an additional two days at a nearby community center that is about a 20-minute walk from most of the university’s dorms.
The students leaped into action and filed a suit claiming county officials violated their rights under the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 14th, 15th, and 26th amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The case is still winding its way through the courts, but in the meantime, students say, the access problems have only gotten worse. In 2016, students were able to vote early on campus; in 2020, they cannot. This is despite the fact that the student center had among the highest early voter turnout in the county in both the 2016 election and the 2018 primary.
“It's just voter suppression. It's one impediment on top of another from Waller County,” said Joshua Muhammad, a Prairie View alum and chair of a new voting rights group at the university called the Panther Party. “Waller County knows this is a voting bloc that's new to voting. We come to college at 18, and we're just getting acquainted with the political process, … and on top of that you have COVID-19, so all these different factors are just making it harder to get young Black students to vote.”
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Students and their lawyers say this is a textbook case of how voting has been restricted since the Supreme Court struck down a major provision of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 in the Shelby County v. Holder decision. Before Shelby County, Alabama, sued to end the practice, officials, including those in Waller County, would have had to get “pre-clearance” before taking away polling places or making other voting changes. In all, officials in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia, as well as in counties throughout the country, had to get approval either from the Justice Department or a special three-judge panel before passing new voting restrictions. Since then, lawmakers in many of those places have passed a slew of voting changes over the protests of voting rights advocates.
“In the wake of Shelby, now we have less protections under the Voting Rights Act. Where does that leave us? That leaves us with the federal court,” said Aklima Khondoker, Georgia state director for the organization All Voting Is Local. “Typically we're not going to see an expansion of voter rights when we have conservative judges on the bench. Those are just facts. While judges who are appointed by progressives [are] more interested in looking at how a law will affect Black and Brown folks.”
With the exception of Jimmy Carter, Donald Trump has appointed more judges than any other modern first-term president. After Republicans took control of the Senate in 2014, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell led an effort to stymie then-president Barack Obama’s nominees to the federal courts. That left 105 positions open for Trump to fill. In all, Trump has been able to place 218 judges on the bench. These judges will have an impact on the federal courts for generations — and that concerns many voting rights advocates.
During the run-up to the 2020 election, the courts have become arbitrators of all kinds of election decisions. Time and time again, judges nominated by Trump — particularly those on the appeals courts and the Supreme Court — have sided with Republican officials in states looking to enforce voting restrictions already on the books or implement new ones.
“We've seen case after case where judges are routinely ruling on the side of making it harder for people to vote, one after the other after the other,” said David Lublin, a political science professor at American University.
In a case before the Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, five Trump-appointed judges ruled that ex-felons in Florida must pay fines and fees before their right to vote could be restored — even if they can't afford it and even though many jurisdictions can’t provide them with the amount they owed. One of those same Trump-appointed judges sided with Alabama in upholding a state law that requires voters to have the signatures of two witnesses or a notary to cast an absentee ballot. Two of the Trump-appointed judges in the Florida felon voting rights case also rejected a challenge to Georgia's Election Day deadline for absentee ballots. Likewise, three Trump-appointed judges on the 5th Circuit green-lit Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on having more than one ballot drop site per county. And at the Supreme Court, Trump-appointed Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh joined with the court's other conservative members to block curbside voting in Alabama and require a witness to vote absentee in South Carolina, even after absentee voting already started.
The fight for voting rights by students at Prairie View goes back to 1971. States ratified the 26th Amendment that year, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. Overnight, Waller County went from having few Black voters to suddenly having thousands because of the young students at Prairie View. In response, the county created a new requirement: Students could only vote if they or their families owned property there. A federal court ended that practice in 1979, but over the four decades since, county officials have been reprimanded repeatedly by the courts and the Justice Department for denying Black students access to the ballot.
In 2003, when a Prairie View student was running for a seat on the Waller County Commissioners Court, the district attorney only dropped threats to charge students with voter fraud after the Justice Department got involved. County officials then swiftly changed gears and voted to reduce early voting hours for students — a move that was particularly consequential that year because Election Day fell in the middle of spring break. The NAACP sued, and the county reinstated early voting hours; the student running for office won the election. Efforts to reject voter registration forms during the 2008 presidential election landed the county in court again. This time, the county was put under additional court oversight. Between 1982 and the Shelby decision in 2013, the Justice Department intervened in Waller County three times.
The Justice Department has intervened thousands of times over the years to protect the voting rights of people of color across the country — but even so, Waller County’s poor voting rights record stands out.
In 2014, a federal court cited Waller County’s discrimination against Prairie View students as a prime example of Texas officials’ “penchant for discrimination” and the state’s “recalcitrance that has persisted over generations despite the repeated intervention of the federal government.”
The next year, Prairie View students again took up the fight for equitable access to the ballot. During summer 2015, Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old Prairie View alum, died in custody at the Waller County jail. Students demanded that officials launch an investigation into her death — a call that went unheeded by county officials. With elections coming up, county officials moved to cut the number of early voting locations from eight to two. That would mean students would have to find rides to the polls to vote early. Again, county officials only backed down after students threatened to sue.
In the initial hearing considering the 2018 early voting plan that led Jayla Allen and other students to sue, Waller County Judge Trey Duhon conceded that “there’s an inequity” with the number of early voting hours available in Prairie View compared to some of the county’s whiter communities. But Waller County lawyers argued that Prairie View had more access to voting locations than several other majority-white towns.
“While other voters had to travel to an out-of-the-way polling location, [Prairie View] students were singularly able to cast a ballot at or immediately next to the campus where they already spend almost all of their time,” the lawyers contended in court filings.
After the students filed their lawsuit in 2018, county officials held an emergency meeting and passed a new early voting plan in the middle of Texas’s early voting period. The new plan increased the number of early voting hours in Prairie View. The county’s lawyers moved to get the case dismissed.
Charles Eskridge, a Trump-appointed district court judge, denied the county’s efforts to get the case tossed out; last month, Prairie View students made arguments in court. They had hoped for a decision in time for the election, but it hasn’t yet come.
While they wait, the lawsuit has become about more than just securing students access to a polling place to vote early. Their lawyers contend that the only way to protect Prairie View students’ right to vote is to again require Waller County to submit any voting changes to the federal government before they can be implemented. That’s already happening in some other towns in the South with long histories of voting rights violations, like Evergreen and Pleasant Grove, both in Alabama, and Pasadena, Texas.
Leah Aden, deputy director of litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund and one of the Prairie View students’ lawyers, says the legal team is building a record to show why voters of color need a new Voting Rights Act.
“Those are just three local jurisdictions,” Aden said. “It's not the widespread relief we would get if Congress passed a new Voting Rights Act or if the Supreme Court came back and said, ‘We decided Shelby wrong.’”
But the students at Prairie View say they can’t just sit around and wait for federal judges or members of Congress to come in to protect their rights.
This year, students and alumni have come together to host marches to the polls, complete with free food and a mobile DJ. Plaintiff Jayla Allen planned to spend this year interning on Capitol Hill in the office of Democratic Rep. Alma Adams. But when COVID-19 hit in March, she returned home to Texas and went back to working to ensure that Prairie View students would have their votes counted.
“We are trying to educate new voters and then trying to convince them, ‘Hey, I know this is your first time voting, but do you mind walking like a mile just to go vote?’” said Cameron Jackson, a junior at Prairie View who serves as the comptroller of the student government. “So it’s harder this year without a place to vote early on campus, but I think we're actually doing quite a good job.”
After she graduated earlier this year, Maia Young got a job getting out the Black vote for the Democrat running in Prairie View’s congressional district. Young said her time at Prairie View radicalized her.
“I was not planning to be this kind of student activist,” she said. “I just wanted to go to class, get my poli-sci degree, and leave. It was going to be so low-key. But then you see all these things happen.”
While Prairie View is just 55 miles from her suburban Houston hometown, arriving in Waller County was a culture shock for Young.
“It's definitely Trump nation,” Young said. “When you drive on [Highway] 290 West, and you're getting towards the exit of Prairie View, there's this huge lit-up sign that's going all the time, and it's just like, ‘MAGA.’ ‘Trump.’ ‘Make America Great.’ ‘Keep America Great.’ … And then Sandra Bland only happened miles away from campus, and she went to Prairie View.
“Prairie View just kind of really opens your eyes,” said Young, who says her decision to attend the school changed her life. “You don't know the history of Prairie View until you get there and you see the effects of that history and it's just like, I have to do something.”