There was a lot of legal activity last week, so it took me a minute to get to this story.
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 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 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.”
See here and here for some background. A copy of the opinion, which I have not read, is here. It seems like Waller County did try to make some accommodations, which the judge accepted as sufficient, though why the PVA&M locations couldn’t have been there for the duration of early voting remains a question to me. I’m sure Waller County would say they were just doing the best they could with the resources they had, and since the judge bought it, there had to be some merit to that. I would say this is an argument for the state to put up more money for counties to provide more voting locations, as well as an argument for making it easier to vote by mail and allowing more people to vote by mail, instead of the ridiculous system we have now. That would be a very cost-effective way to accommodate people who would otherwise have a difficult time getting to a voting location. For obvious reasons, we’re not getting any of that with the state government we have now.