The Scientific Activist

When I was a student at Texas A&M University and active in politics there, I spent a lot of time on voter registration. Much of this effort was devoted to the community outside of the university, but my primary focus was on students at the university. And, although some people would contend that college students should register to vote from their hometowns, I strongly disagree. At the very least, students should be allowed to choose which location they prefer, but beyond that I believe there’s a strong case for students to register at their university location, unless they have a compelling reason to vote in their hometowns. And, on this first point, the Supreme Court agrees (Symm v. US, 1979).

I would take that one step further and argue that that college students should be actively encouraged to register to vote at their university location as opposed to their hometown because:

  1. Voting by absentee ballot is a pain in the ass and can act as a deterrent;
  2. Traveling home to vote is a much less likely scenario;
  3. Local politics at the university location are likely to more directly affect students than politics in their hometown;
  4. Many students will never again live full time in their childhood hometown; and,
  5. Students voting locally can be more effectively targeted by get out the vote drives.

As a demographic, young people traditionally have a very low voter turnout. So, anything that can be done to counter this trend (and engage young people in the civic process) should be encouraged.

This doesn’t meant that voter registration easy work (although I found it very rewarding). Although it is incredibly straightforward for someone to register him or herself to vote, it’s much more difficult to register someone else to vote. You have to be deputized by the local voter registrar, you have to verify the identity of each person you accept a voter registration card from, and you have to keep a log of the people you registered to vote. These problems are often compounded on a college campus, particularly when students are living in dorms and don’t know their physical address (as opposed to their mailing address). Despite the difficulties we had at Texas A&M University, these were nothing compared to the constant reports of problems I heard coming out of Prairie View A&M University, another member of the Texas A&M system, located about half way between Texas A&M University and Houston.

The difference was that Prairie View A&M is a historically black university. And, although student voting there was under constant attack, it was pretty clear what was really at play: thinly veiled racism. So, when I saw this article today in The New York Times about a voting rights case coming out of Prairie View A&M, I can’t say that I was terribly surprised:

PRAIRIE VIEW, Tex. — “Vote or Die,” exhorts the faded slogan on a roadway at Prairie View A&M University, where black students once marched for the right to vote here in the town where they attend school, on a former cotton plantation about 50 miles northwest of Houston.

The students won that battle in 2004, long after the United States Supreme Court supposedly decided the issue in 1979. But disputes over minority voting rights — along with accusations of election fraud — continue to rouse Prairie View, home to one of the nation’s leading historically black colleges, and other Texas locales.

“The cold war’s not over — they just moved the fence from Berlin to the Texas border,” said DeWayne Charleston, Waller County justice of the peace, who maintains that local officials failed to record hundreds of students whom he registered to vote in 2006. The federal Department of Justice and the Texas attorney general’s office say investigations are under way here, but will not give details.

In 2004, Oliver Kitzman, then the Waller County district attorney, challenged the students’ right to cast ballots here rather than in their home communities, although the Supreme Court had long ago decided they could. Students, claiming that the county’s white residents feared the voting power of the predominantly black 9,000-member student body, marched in protest, and Mr. Abbott wrote an opinion supporting them. Mr. Kitzman soon retired, and students continued to cast ballots here.

But other voting rights disputes have since erupted. Before the 2006 election, Judge Charleston said in an interview, he personally registered about 1,000 students. But on Election Day, he said, hundreds of them were turned away as not registered to vote. The registration cards were later found in county offices, he said.

Judge Charleston said he had also complained to federal and state officials that Waller County had denied Prairie View students convenient polling locations. Further, he told them that for the May 10 school board election, not only did district trustees use public money to issue a voter guide, the guide also gave short shift to two black candidates, Jemiah Richards and Charli Cooksey, both Prairie View students, who subsequently lost to incumbents.

This history of voter suppression goes back so far that the 1979 Supreme Court case referenced in the article (and cited by me above), Symm v. US, actually came out of Prairie View A&M as well!

Unfortunately, suppression of minority voters is a common occurrence–particularly in Republican-dominated areas. And, this year we’re going to need to be particularly vigilant, because due to the breakthrough candidacy of Barack Obama, African American voter turnout will be particularly high, and this will likely make some traditionally strong Republican districts unusually competitive. In response to this, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see suppression of minority voters on a scale not seen since the civil rights movement. Such events are truly poisonous for democracy, so if you see anything fishy going on, make sure you report it immediately!


  1. #1 Aerik
    May 28, 2008

    Good heads-up, Nick.

  2. #2 Emily
    May 28, 2008

    I live and work in the Cypress area around 290. (side note: I also pay taxes here, so it’s where I vote, even though I go to school in PA.) A lot of Prairie View students come to work in this area, especially lately, because it has been largely insulated from many of the economic problems that the rest of the country is having. As a result, I have been hearing about these issues for a long, long time. I’m glad the media is finally getting wind of this. I hope the spotlight forces some change, not just at Prairie View, but around the country. These students and voters deserve better from their country.

  3. #3 Thomas
    May 29, 2008

    Does the principle “No taxation without representation” still work? Maybe a tax boycott would raise some eyebrows?

  4. #4 David Marjanovi?
    May 29, 2008

    But on Election Day, he said, hundreds of them were turned away as not registered to vote. The registration cards were later found in county offices, he said.

    Why don’t the responsibles get twenty years in jail?

    Where’s the outrage?

  5. #5 Sarah
    May 29, 2008

    Here in DC our motto is “Taxation without representation,” but pointing this out to the powers that be hasn’t managed to get us representation in Congress. So I don’t think that that motto will be of much use to the students in Prairie View. (Do I sound bitter? I should. It stinks that I had to give up my vote in Congress by moving across a border line.) We like to think that the US is the great shining beacon of democracy, but it’s never quite managed to live up to that.

  6. #6 Eamon Knight
    May 29, 2008

    My son (Canadian attending an American college) was quite disgusted about how many of his fellow students who couldn’t be bothered to vote (at home OR college) in your 2004 election. When the last Canadian election rolled around, he made sure to register a proxy so his mother could cast his ballot. Yes, we’re proud.

  7. #7 A
    May 29, 2008

    Actually, I would recommend absentee voting or rather voting by mail, wherever it is allowed.It has many advantages:
    – If you are refused an absentee ballot before the election, you can ask why, and submit a complaint (and ask for provisional ballot…)
    Being denied to vote on election day means that the vote suppression worked, even if at a later day some court tells you that you should have been allowed to vote.
    – There is a paper trail! None of these unverifiable computer voting machines.
    (Of course, if those counting the vote decide to throw away some absentee ballots, or the local post office decides to deliver them late… but then ask for election results to include the number of absentee ballots, and hand-deliver your ballot envelope, and count the number of friends who do likewise)
    – Most of us have busy lives. And if on election morning, your child falls sick, or your 11 a.m. presentation is taken down by a computer crash… most of us will look after the child, or try to save our job, rather than waiting in line for to vote.
    I understand Oregon uses vote-by-mail, and my county in California encourages permanent absentee voter registration.

  8. #8 Thomas
    May 29, 2008

    Sarah, US democracy is a bit like FORTRAN, old, quirky, but many people still use it because, well, it’s traditional. For it’s time it was a wonderful system, but Americans have trouble accepting that it is by now severely out of date.

  9. #9 oscar74
    June 1, 2008

    Anyone in Texas who registers through a volunteer deputy registrar should follow up with the county voter registrar if they haven’t received their voter registration certificate by mail within three weeks. Also, pay particular attention to the 30-day advance deadline for registration prior to elections; the deadline for November ’08 in Texas is October 6. My understanding of provisional ballots in Texas is that they must be offered to anyone presenting to vote except a person attempting to vote in a county other than their county of residence. I have to venture an opinion that for internet-savvy students, there is no excuse in 2008 for failing to have secured a valid voter registration well before this November, as well as all the information required to vote. Texas, and other states, also have a lengthy early-voting period prior to election day, so take advantage of it. Every state election office, and probably most urban county election offices, have websites that are useful to anyone with a need for information about voting. Party websites, League of Women Voters, and many others also have information. Here’s the link to the Texas Secretary of State’s Election Division:

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