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Federal judge says Waller County voting process did not discriminate against Black college students

The fight over student voting rights on the historically Black campus, built on a former plantation, stretches across decades and generations of students.
Rachel Zein
The Texas Tribune
The fight over student voting rights on the historically Black campus, built on a former plantation, stretches across decades and generations of students.

A group of students at Prairie View A&M University sued the county, claiming it set up an election schedule in 2018 that offered students — most of them Black — fewer opportunities to vote early than the county’s white residents.

A federal judge ruled Thursday that Waller County did not discriminate against student voters at Prairie View A&M University during the 2018 general election when it granted them fewer days and hours for early voting, the latest chapter in a history of voting rights struggles in the southeast Texas county.

In a 128-page ruling and summary of the case, U.S. District Judge Charles R. Eskridge said there wasn’t evidence to “establish a concern” over the lack of any early voting location on campus or in the city of Prairie View during the first week of early voting that year. The county commissioners court, Eskridge found, allocated early voting locations and hours on an “objective and reasonable basis” that did not run afoul of the federal Voting Rights Act or the U.S. Constitution.

The case dates to 2018, when a group of Prairie View A&M students sued the county, alleging it set up an unlawful lopsided schedule that offered students — most of them Black — fewer opportunities to vote early than the county’s white residents. But the fight over student voting rights on the historically Black campus, built on a former plantation, stretches across decades and generations of students.

The lawsuit was set in a place where the county’s majority white leadership has historically set up hurdles to keep Black students from voting or to limit their ability to wield meaningful political influence at the ballot box. In modern times, the affronts to the rights of students have included systematically preventing them from registering to vote, threats by district attorneys to prosecute students for voter fraud, redistricting plans that split up their voting bloc, and perennial fights over access to early voting locations.

Prairie View A&M students have long looked to the courts and the federal government for help. But in the current case, Eskridge — an appointee of former President Donald Trump — sided with county officials who argued the decisions of 2018 were being painted with too broad a brush based on a history in which current leaders say they played no part.

He bemoaned that the county’s history “manifest itself in the form of heightened suspicion and vigilance” by the students of today despite what he called a “genuine respect” between current and recently graduated students and county leaders.

“Regardless, the question at hand is whether the year 2018 should be added to the above list,” Eskridge wrote. “And the answer is, it shouldn’t.”

The legal fight emerged in the fall of 2018 when students realized the county’s early voting schedule left Prairie View residents with far fewer days and hours for voting than other population centers in the county, and zero opportunity to vote in the city during the first half of the early voting period.

Prairie View, where the vast majority of residents are Black, had five days of early voting. In two of the three other towns that serve as population hubs in Waller County, with many more white residents than Prairie View, early voting would run during all 12 days of the early voting period. In the third town, early voting would be available for 11 days.

The students pressed for better access at a commissioners court meeting five days before the start of early voting in 2018, at which Waller County Judge Trey Duhon noted there was “an inequity” in the number of overall hours among commissioners’ precincts. But the court ultimately voted to make no changes.

Students sued days later, asking a federal judge to order the county to set up an early voting site on campus that would offer weekend hours. This prompted an emergency meeting in which the commissioners court instead voted to extend hours on the three days an on-campus location was previously scheduled to host voting during the second week of early voting. And in a city without public transportation and where many students don’t have cars, the court added five hours of weekend voting at Prairie View City Hall — a two-and-a-half-mile walk one way from some student housing.

At a roughly two-week trial in 2020, Duhon cast the commissioners court’s 2018 decisions as a balancing act to provide early voting access to everyone in the county “to the best of our ability.” He reasoned that because the on-campus voting location was in a student center frequented by students — some passing through multiple times a day — hosting early voting there for two or three days “affords them multiple opportunities” to cast their ballots.

But the county also argued students were seeking preferential access over the community, including residents who have to travel longer distances to vote.

In their testimony, various Prairie View A&M students decried what they described as a demarcation by the county between students and the rest of Waller County’s residents, saying students are often denied the status of a full constituency and standing as an equal part of the community.

“Whether they are there for four years or 40 years, they deserve equal access to the polls,” said Priscilla Barbour, a former president of Prairie View A&M’s student government association. “It should not be a battle every time that they request it.”

In listing the various reasons for why he sided with the county, Eskridge noted that Prairie View had more voting hours than smaller population centers and that the two precincts in Waller County with the most allocated hours were majority-Black districts.

He also wrote that the initial early voting plan was adopted following normal procedures, including a joint agreement by the local party chairs. The county previously explained that the local chair of the Democratic Party had asked to push early voting at Prairie View to the second week of the early voting period, noting concerns that voting would conflict with homecoming events.

And students were offered a “convenience of hours” at an on-campus location they frequented that others in the county did not have, he wrote.

“At best, Plaintiffs establish a mere inconvenience imposed on PVAMU students with respect to the early voting schedule for the 2018 general election,” Eskridge said. “In reality, it’s rather doubtful that the early voting locations and hours provided by Waller County to PVAMU students can be understood as creating any incremental inconvenience at all.”