In Waller County, Texas, a 40,000-strong exurb to the northwest of Houston, early voting is simple. Texas law mandates that the county maintain a main voting site, located in the county seat of Hempstead, that is open for at least five hours every day from Monday, October 22, to Friday, November 2. During those two weeks, satellite centers provide voting hours farther out in the county. Residents in the towns of Brookshire and Waller, two of the larger places in Waller County, have multiple days to cast a ballot in both the first and second week of early voting. As guided by state law, the early-voting plans in Waller County are intended to both maximize a finite pool of resources and ensure that most of the voters in the county have at least some convenient entry points for early voting that can fit into their schedule. All of that applies so long as you aren’t a black college student, according to a lawsuit filed last week in a U.S. district court by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. The suit, brought on behalf of several students at Prairie View A&M University, alleges that the county shortchanges students with a local early-voting plan that uniquely constrains their choices, offering only three days of on-campus early voting in the second week.*
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.”