Students at Prairie View A&M University, the state’s oldest historically black public college, have fought for decades to persuade Waller County to allow a polling place on the campus. Now an unlikely coalition has succeeded, by cobbling together a compromise in time for the November election.
“I’m glad with how things worked out,” George C. Wright, the university’s president, said Thursday. “I find it a little frustrating, though, that our students have had to work so long on something like this.”
Waller County commissioners voted on Wednesday to hold Election Day voting at the Memorial Student Center on the Prairie View campus. Early voting in the precinct will continue to be held at a county community center.
The breakthrough was triggered by the efforts of Priscilla Barbour, a senior political science major and the president of the student government association, whom Wright described as a “truly outstanding student representative.”
In July, Barbour sent a letter to Secretary of State John Steen outlining students’ concerns, prompting him to make a campus visit in August.
She pointed out that students who wanted to vote but had no access to transportation had to walk more than a mile to a community center and wait in line near a busy roadway. The situation, she asserted, was a violation of the federal Voting Rights Act’s prohibition on race-based discrimination.
Meanwhile, True the Vote, a national group focused on voter fraud with roots in the Tea Party, learned about the students’ efforts and quietly joined the cause, at the encouragement of Republican Prairie View alumni.
A spokesman for the organization acknowledged that it might be viewed by some as “the least likely group to help out.”
True the Vote’s efforts to verify voter registration rolls and observe elections in several states have been criticized as an attempt to suppress voting by minority groups. In 2012, U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., wrote a letter to Catherine Engelbrecht, True the Vote’s president, warning that the group’s efforts “could amount to a criminal conspiracy to deny legitimate voters their constitutional rights.”
On Thursday, Engelbrecht, who has disputed such characterizations, described her organization as “the nation’s leading vanguard for voter’s rights.”
Barbour said accepting help from the controversial group had been risky.
“I decided I would be open to whatever anybody would do to help,” she said. “I think that was one of the game changers.”
Engelbrecht said she found that “years of frustratingly limited communication had taken its toll on both the county and the university.”
But taking an inclusive approach, she said, fostered discussions that had “no racial accusations, divisive arguments or emotional ploys — just solution-oriented support.”
On Sept. 4, True the Vote issued a report proposing that Prairie View have on-campus voting, in part because of population trends, which show a growing percentage of college-age people in the precinct.
The organization also recommended that early voting continue at the community center, to accommodate voters who preferred to stay off campus. Commissioners ultimately adopted such a plan..
Robyn German, the county’s new election administrator, praised the collaborative effort. She noted that in addition to creating the new campus polling place, county commissioners voted to provide more options for residents throughout the county.
“I understand that everyone is interested in Prairie View, as am I,” German wrote in an email, “but I am also very proud with the additional early voting locations, additional days and hours of early voting.”
Barbour said the decision represented “a new era of collaboration between the county and the university.”
State Rep. James White, R-Hillister, who participated in student government when he attended Prairie View, said the team effort should serve as an example.
“It just goes to show that in our system of government, if you sit down and talk and work through a situation, you can come up with a compromise,” he said.
White added, “I think the state Legislature and Congress have something to learn from them.”