On December 16, the Waller County Commissioners’ Court voted to drastically reduce the number of early voting locations (for the upcoming March primary) in the county from eight locations throughout the county to two locations. They did so without any discussion of the racial implications of the decision, which were plain. The new plan eliminated both early polling locations in the only majority-minority precinct in the County: one in the primarily African-American City of Prairie View and the other on the campus of Prairie View A & M University, a historically black university. Neither of the remaining two early voting locations was easily accessible to Prairie View students and residents. The County did so without any discussion of the County’s sordid (and recent) history of attempts to disenfranchise Prairie View A & M students, requiring the intervention of the Department of Justice on more than one occasion, including most recently in 2008.
This is precisely the type of voting change that would have required preclearance from the Department of Justice prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County, which gutted a key preclearance provision from the Voting Rights Act. The change would have almost certainly been denied preclearance because of its blatant retrogressive effect on minority voting rights. The practical impact on the community is undeniable since approximately 40% of county voters cast their ballots at early voting locations in the last election. But without preclearance, the African-American residents of Prairie View lost their early voting locations in a blink of an eye. The African-American community, however, did not sit idly by and community leaders called the Commissioners’ Court to account for its reckless action.
On December 22, 2015, Campaign Legal Center was contacted by Waller County voters and asked if the Voting Rights Institute could assist. That very same day, we wrote a letter to the County Judge, the Elections Administrator, and the County Commissioners, urging them to reverse course and protect the early voting locations in Prairie View. CLC reminded the Commissioners’ Court that Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act prohibits any practice or procedure that “results in a denial or abridgment of the right of any citizen . . . to vote on account of race or color” and that the right to vote is abridged whenever the political process is not equally open to participation by African-American voters. CLC explained: “The closing of early voting locations in Precinct 3, a majority-minority precinct, appears to have precisely this prohibited effect because minority voters in the precinct will now have less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate effectively in the political processes and elect representatives of their choice.”
Therefore, CLC urged the Commissioners to reconsider its decision. And they did. The very next day, the Commissioners’ Court voted to increase the number of early voting locations to six, including one location in the city of Prairie View and within walking distance of the university campus. CLC commends the County’s decision to reverse course and maintain an early voting location in the African-American community. One Waller County official commented that their original decision “overlooked some things,” and it is clear that if the preclearance process was still in effect, it would have prevented such “oversights.”
To read the letter to Waller County, click here.
To read the Houston Chronicle’s coverage of Waller County’s reversal, click here.