Read: Voter suppression is warping democracy.
With a week of early voting left, and when early-voting returns have been massive across the board, the legal drama in obscure Waller County might seem insignificant. But in a country where disenfranchisement has become perhaps the dominant theme of the 2018 election cycle, the local battle is both instructive and representative. The fight for the ballot for Prairie View A&M students has mirrored the long saga of voting rights in America. The drama there during this election is both a microcosm of a larger canon of dramas around voter suppression today and a reminder of the history that brought the country to this moment.
The basic demographic problem in Waller County is easy to sum up. Waller County is mostly white. Prairie View is a predominantly black school, founded as the state flagship for black students in 1876. The university has always been a locus of tension for the surrounding community, and even current students attest that those tensions affect the way they are seen and treated any time they step off campus. “Though we are just one campus, the population is big,” says Damon Johnson, a sophomore from Houston. “The community is it’s own way, and they’re kinda predominantly white. And us young black people coming in, I don’t feel like we get the same chances. We’re not treated the same. The laws are uneven for us.”
Read: Sandra Bland and the history of racism in Waller County
For Johnson, voting provides a chance to challenge that uneven treatment. This year is Johnson’s first federal election, but like many other students at Prairie View A&M, he rents an apartment within walking distance from campus, and doesn’t have a car. He relies on the campus shuttle for most things outside of walking distance. That means his most viable location for voting early is the one that was originally the most limited in the county: the student center, which offers three eight-hour sessions.
Johnson joined the lawsuit against Waller County, which alleges that the plan in place constitutes intentional suppression of young black voters. It contends that the constriction of early-voting hours in the city of Prairie View—in which Prairie View A&M is located—disproportionately targets the biggest population of black voters in the county (more than half of the black people of age to vote live in the city). The plaintiffs claim the plan to open early voting on campus from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on designated days doesn’t meet the needs of students, many of whom are in class or otherwise occupied during the workday. They also claim that the county commissioners, a bipartisan group, approved the plan without meaningful input from the Prairie View community.
Waller County election officials have denied these claims. In a statement to The Atlantic through a lawyer, Trey Duhon, the Waller County judge, stressed that the county has worked hard to protect student voting rights. “Waller County vehemently denies the allegations that it acted to disenfranchise or limit the opportunities for electoral participation of any of its citizens,” Duhon said. “Rather, the county has, at all times, worked to allocate its limited resources in a manner that best provides all voters a fair opportunity to vote early if they so choose.” The county also maintains that people with objections to the early-voting plan had opportunities to challenge the plan before the election.