Black Students Facing Barriers to Voting in the County Where Sandra Bland Died

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Waller County, Texas is in the news once more, and again it’s not good news for African American residents.

The county where Sandra Bland died after a violent arrest at a traffic stop is home to Prairie View A&M University (aka PVAMU), one of Texas’s historically black colleges. PVAMU students have been engaged in a decades-long fight to gain sufficient access to on-campus voting locations. This year, county officials are debating whether to provide an on-campus early voting location accessible to the approximately 2,000 students registered to vote there.

Bland herself was an alumna of the university, and was returning to Waller County to start her “dream job” on the campus.

The ongoing struggle by African Americans to gain sufficient access to voting locations is part of the same systemic bias that led to Sandra Bland’s wrongful arrest.

Waller County has a population of approximately 43,205. PVAMU has an enrollment of over 8,300 students, plus faculty and staff. 83% of students are African-American. However, until 2013 there was no voting location on campus — not even on Election Day.

In 2013, the Waller County Commissioners finally voted unanimously to allow an Election Day voting location to be placed on the campus. Previously, students had to walk a mile to the nearest polling location. The former president of the PVAMU student government, Priscilla Barbour, made the case that the lack of access violated the Voting Rights Act. Those same provisions in the Voting Rights Act were struck down by the US Supreme Court.

The struggle of Prairie View A&M students to vote is not new.

In 2008, PVAMU students staged a seven-mile march to the county’s one early voting location after polling stations were cut from 6 to 1.

The county later reversed course after national attention on the matter, and added three more locations. The students’ efforts were profiled by PBS here.

Yet again, the question is one of access to early voting, and whether students will have access to an on-campus location during the 12 days that the polls are open prior to the election. Currently, there are seven early voting sites planned in the county. Again, students must walk a mile to the nearest location if they want to take advantage of early voting.

Tp his credit, the Waller County Elections Administrator Dan Teed is calling for expanded voting opportunities:

Dan Teed called the seven-site plan “insufficient.” He called for starting a new chapter in the county’s history and seizing an opportunity to work together for that change.

A decision has been punted to January 27.

After the heightened scrutiny on Waller County in the past year, the Commissioners Court should view this as an opportunity to send a message, and prove that the county is indeed committed to moving forward, creating and protecting meaningful opportunities for PVAMU students to vote.

The Waller County Commissioners Court should address historic and contemporary wrongs, and provide an early voting and Election Day voting location on the Prairie View A&M campus.

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About Author

Katherine Haenschen

Katherine Haenschen is a PhD candidate at the University of Texas, where she studies political participation on digital media. She previously managed successful candidate, issue, voter registration, and GOTV campaigns in Central Texas. She is also a fan of UCONN women's basketball and breakfast tacos.

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