A group of students at a historically black university in Texas is suing county officials for not providing enough early voting locations on campus, saying they are discriminating against students based on their race and age.
The five students at Prairie View A&M University filed the lawsuit in federal court in Houston on Monday, the first day of early voting for the 2018 midterm elections in the state. It noted that election officials had failed to establish a single early voting location on campus during the entire first week the polls are open. While there is early voting on campus during the second week, it’s only for three days and ends at 5 p.m. There is additional early voting at a community center, but the lawsuit alleges that’s not a place students regularly visit. There’s also no early voting during the weekends in Prairie View.
The suit says the limited early voting in Prairie View, home to Prairie View A&M and where 79 percent of the voting-age population is black, is illegal because nearby towns in the county with more voters who are white and less who are ages 18 to 21 have more early voting opportunities. They say the county’s early voting locations violate the Voting Rights Act as well as the 14th, 15th and 26th amendments, the last of which guarantees the right to vote to anyone over 18.
“This town that is majority black, that is majority students, this is the town that sort of has been denied the opportunity for early voting for this first week and is given less of an opportunity than every other community in the county.”
The suit comes as a U.S. Senate race in the state between Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke is one of the most closely watched in the country. Nearby Harris County, home to Houston, set a record on Monday for the most ballots cast there on the first day of early voting in a midterm election.
In the city of Waller, which is close to Prairie View and where 69 percent of the voting age population is white, there are two early voting sites during the first week of voting. Both sites have weekend hours and, in the second week, evening hours. About 10 percent of eligible voters in Waller are ages 18 to 21, compared with 66 percent in Prairie View.
In Katy, another nearby town also in Waller County, there are three days of early voting during the first week (but none during the second) from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. There, 77 percent of eligible voters are white and just 7.4 percent are ages 18 to 21.
The suit says that the early voting in nearby towns is not an adequate substitute for students on campus because they might not have the transportation or time to travel to them.
“This town that is majority black, that is majority students, this is the town that sort of has been denied the opportunity for early voting for this first week and is given less of an opportunity than every other community in the county,” said Deuel Ross, an attorney at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is representing the students. “We think that they’re entitled to, at the very least, parity. Some sort of early voting this week and early voting on the weekends as other towns have.”
The early voting locations were jointly proposed by the local Democratic and Republican party chairs and subsequently approved by a board of county commissioners. While some commissioners acknowledged there were some issues with the plan, they approved it by pointing to the fact that it was proposed by the local parties, early voting during the first week would conflict with homecoming, parking could be difficult on campus and that some members of the community did not feel comfortable going on campus, according to the complaint.
The complaint also notes that there’s a history of targeting students in Waller County. Following the passage of the 26th Amendment, county officials tried to allow students to vote only if their families owned property in the county. In 2003, the county tried to cut early voting hours when a student was running for office. In 2007-2008, it limited the number of registrations volunteer deputy registrars could submit. In 2016, the county also tried to cut the number of early voting sites, making it more difficult for people in Prairie View to vote, but eventually reversed course when facing the threat of litigation.
Jenny Diamond Cheng, a law professor at Vanderbilt Law School, said it could be difficult for the plaintiffs to make their case that the early voting plan was unconstitutional.
“To make a 15th or 26th Amendment case, the PVAMU plaintiffs have to show that the defendants intentionally discriminated against them on the basis of race (15th Amendment) or age (26th Amendment),” she wrote in an email. “There is early voting on the PVAMU campus. It is just less early voting (fewer days, no weekends or evenings). Furthermore, the fact that the proposal was jointly offered by both the chairs of the local Democratic and Republican parties suggests that whatever the actual rationale for offering less early voting on the PVAMU campus, it is probably not (just) naked partisanship.”
She added that the plaintiffs’ strongest claim appears to be based on Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits “voting practices or procedures” that discriminate on the basis of race or color.
Waller County also has a history of allegations of racial discrimination and the Justice Department monitored voting there in 2014 and 2016. The county drew national attention in 2016 when Sandra Bland, an alumna of Prairie View A&M, was stopped for failing to properly signal a lane change and then arrested. Bland committed suicide in the Waller County jail days later.
County officials did not return a request for comment. Rosa Harris, the chair of the Waller County Democratic Party, did not respond to a request for comment, and someone managing the Waller County Republican Party Facebook page declined to comment, saying they hadn’t seen the lawsuit.
Ross said it was not surprising that both parties had agreed to a plan that negatively affected black students.
“People often think as voting rights as being between Democrats and Republicans,” he said. “Often what happens is that black voters get caught in between the two major parties when it’s beneficial to either one of them to either deny them the opportunity to vote or to make it more difficult for them or to compromise on black voting rights when it’s beneficial to one party or the other. I don’t think from our perspective, there’s nothing unique about the parties agreeing on a plan that ends up harming black voters.”
This story has been updated with comment from Cheng.