Fighting to Vote at our HBCU…Again
I remember watching my dad stand in line for hours at the North Houston Barbara Bush Public Library to cast his vote for Barack Obama. It was dark and cold, and the lines seemed to go on forever, but we weren’t leaving until my dad made it to the voting booth. As we later watched the election results, my dad was proud, knowing his vote helped elect the country’s first black president. After witnessing that moment, I didn’t need anyone to convince me why I should vote.
And yet here I am, fighting for that basic right. Voting has never come easy for us students at Prairie View A&M University, a historically black college, about an hour northwest of Houston. For decades, students have felt harassed and intimidated while trying to vote in local elections. In the late 70’s, Waller County required Prairie View students to complete a random questionnaire in order to vote, until that practice was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. Then in 1992, students were charged with voter fraud. Voter suppression has since continued.
And this election is no different. Since we don’t have individual mailboxes at Prairie View, when registering to vote, students were told by Waller County to use the same address that the school uses as its primary address—either 100 or 700 University Drive.
But here’s the issue. Using the 700 University Drive address put students in another precinct—off campus. And it wasn’t until the last day of voter registration that this news started popping up on social media, sparking fears about students being turned away at our campus polling place and rumors that our voter registrations had been rejected. Election officials said students who used the 700 University address would need to complete a change-of-address form. To make matters worse, we’re not given as many early voting days on campus as many of the other precincts in Waller County.
But now five of my classmates, represented by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, have filed a lawsuit against Waller County election officials for refusing to provide an early voting location on campus or in the city of Prairie View during the first week of early voting. To me, this constitutes an intentional tactic to suppress the vote on our HBCU campus.
If all of this sounds overwhelming, that’s because it is. When I was a freshman, I wasn’t able to cast my ballot at the campus precinct, even after standing in line at the student center for over an hour. I was stunned and really thought I was being lied to when the poll worker said I would need to make a two-mile trek to vote at the Prairie View City Hall instead of on-campus. That just wasn’t an option for me. I, like many other students, didn’t have a car and lived in a town with no public transportation.
I felt defeated then, but this year I decided that I was going to be proactive. I helped register hundreds of students on my campus. With the support of school administrators, Prairie View residents and local Democrats, we students rallied, and our issue drew national media attention. Waller County assured us that every registered student will be allowed to vote in this year’s midterm election. They say additional poll workers will be on hand to help students change their voter registration address.
For me, this is a relief, but especially given this county’s troubling history with voting rights for Prairie View students, we shouldn’t have to fight in the first place.
These constant issues with voting feel like new attacks in an old battle. With more than 8,000 students enrolled at Prairie View, we have the power to influence local elections. However, we continue to be suppressed or rebuffed at every turn. I blame it on many factors, including ageism, racism, Republicans’ subversive measures to suppress the black vote and incompetent leadership from the Waller County Democrats.
The frustration of dealing with these obstacles makes many of my classmates throw up their hands and say “my vote doesn’t count anyway.” And sometimes I don’t blame them, because this fight is exhausting. But I worked hard this year to get students registered and I want to make sure they vote. I’m now focusing my energy to push my classmates to show up to the polls in record numbers.
As my dad taught me on that cold election night in 2008, I know I just can’t give up.