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The frontlines of voter suppression in the US

  • 02 November 2018
  If you had to pick a single example of the recent history of voter suppression in the United States, there are few better examples than Prairie View A&M University. Located in Waller County, Prairie View A&M is the largest and oldest of the HBCUs — Historically Black Colleges and Universities — in the state of Texas. The majority of its 9500 students are black. So too is the population of the namesake city, with African Americans making up around 93.5 per cent of its 6000 residents.

But the rest of Waller County is majority white. Even including the population of Prairie View, the county overall is almost 58 per cent white, and the majority of the white population votes Republican. The young, majority-black student body at Prairie View A&M, on the other hand, are a solidly Democratic constituency.

When voters between the age of 18 and 21 became eligible to vote after the 26th Amendment passed in 1971, conservative election officials in Waller County anticipated a significant shift in the local voting population. Young black students living on campus would be able to cast their votes in the thousands. To attempt to prevent this, the country refused for years to recognise students as residents of the county for voting purposes.

Students challenged the decision, and the case that made it all the way to the Supreme Court. The students won, and their right to register and vote where they lived on campus was upheld. Since 1979, students across the United States have had their right to register to vote at their college address recognised. But the county had no obligation to make it easy for the students to vote: despite housing almost a fifth of the county's population, there was no voting booth on campus at Prairie View A&M until 2013.

In a year when voter suppression has become a key tactic for Republicans' defense of their majorities in the house and senate, Prairie View is once again a perfect microcosm for voter suppression in the United States. Local officials have made it difficult for students to register, and restricted their opportunities to vote.

Preventing registration

The first major hurdle Prairie View students faced to vote this year was having their registration honoured at the on-campus voting booth. Like many American residential universities, Prairie View doesn't have individual postal addresses for students. So, in 2016, the university and the county reached an agreement that students could