U.S. Senate: Minority Voter Registration Problems Outlined to Senate Rules Committee
Below for your information is a letter submitted at the request of the Senate Rules Committee following yesterday's hearing concerning voter registration problems during the 2008 election cycle. The letter outlines the case against Waller County, Texas for violations of the Voting Rights Act in order to suppress voter registration efforts by students of historically black Prairie View A&M University. The Campaign Legal Center represented Prairie View students in the matter.
March 13, 2009
The Honorable Charles E. Schumer
The Honorable Bob Bennett
Senate Committee on Rules & Administration
305 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
Dear Chairman Schumer and Ranking Member Bennett:
I am writing as a follow-up to yesterday's Senate Rules Committee hearing on problems associated with voter registration during the 2008 election cycle. Although we have made progress over the years in fits and starts, there continue to be real and ongoing problems surrounding voter registration that need to be addressed. You have heard testimony regarding problems faced by citizens attempting to register to vote across the country. I would like to offer one more unfortunate example for the record from Waller County, Texas, that the Campaign Legal Center became involved in during the 2008 election season.
During the 2008 election cycle, students at historically black Prairie View A & M University (PVAMU) in Waller County, Texas encountered significant barriers to becoming registered voters. The Campaign Legal Center provided legal counsel to a number of students at the historically black university who believed that their voter registration applications were being rejected for racially discriminatory reasons. Upon investigation, the Campaign Legal Center concluded that the actions of Waller County officials violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965. There had been many previous complaints about the unnecessary obstacles to voter registration being placed in the way of PVAMU student voters. It was widely known that the Department of Justice had been investigating these problems for the last few years. Consequently, representatives of the Campaign Legal Center met with Department of Justice officials in the summer of 2008 and urged the Department to take action against Waller County on behalf of the students there. Legal Center attorneys provided the Departmental attorneys with a draft complaint that the Legal Center was prepared to file in court if DOJ officials refused to take action. The complaint outlined the significant hurdles erected in violation of the Voting Rights Act by Waller County officials attempting to keep PVAMU students from exercising their right to vote.
In the fall of 2008, the United States Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Waller County for violations of the Voting Rights Act. The violations concerned various aspects of Waller County's racially discriminatory voter registration process. Specifically, the Justice Department identified several new voter registration procedures that had been implemented by Waller County election officials in violation Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (known as the preclearance requirements). These changes in voter registration procedures included numerous barriers that Waller County officials had erected and which were aimed at PVAMU students, particularly those students who had volunteered to serve as deputy voting registrars. These barriers included: refusing to accept voter registration applications submitted by a voluntary deputy registrar that the registrar's staff deemed incomplete; requiring the voluntary deputy registrar to personally notify each such applicant of the rejection; and imposing limitations on the number of voter registration documents that voluntary deputy registrars could obtain to facilitate voter registration. The Department of Justice also alleged that Waller County election officials violated federal law because, in processing voter registration applications, county officials rejected applications of Prairie View students for arbitrary reasons that were not authorized by state law (such as failure to include a zip code and other hyper-technical reasons).
On October 17, 2008, a consent judgment and decree was agreed upon by the United States Department of Justice and Waller County officials, and approved by the federal court. The agreement provided far ranging relief for African-American students at PVAMU. Under the settlement agreement, Waller County officials admitted that it had made several changes in its voter registration procedures in violation of the Voting Rights Act. The County also admitted that its rejection of PVAMU voter registration applications that were inconsistent with Texas law violated 42 U.S.C. 1971(a)(2)(B). Under the consent judgment, Waller County agreed to review previously rejected applications within seven days of the settlement agreement, and county officials were required to notify PVAMU students in sufficient time that they could cast ballots on Election Day 2008. Also, as part of the settlement, election officials in Waller County agreed to develop by December 1, 2008, a training program for voluntary deputy registrars, including appropriate written materials, for purposes of improving the training of the Waller County voting registrar's staff and existing and future voluntary deputy registrars. The consent judgment also required Waller County officials to coordinate with PVAMU officials to hold twice-annual events, on the PVAMU campus, at which students can become voluntary deputy voting registrars and receive training on the proper procedures for the program. Copies of the complaint filed by the Justice Department, as well as the Consent Judgment and Decree, are attached for your information.
The settlement agreement was a major step forward in making registration and voting opportunities equally available to all Waller County residents, especially the students at PVAMU. It will need to be monitored closely by DOJ in the days ahead to ensure compliance.
As the Waller County case clearly illustrates, problems in voter registration procedures are not a thing of the past. We must do all that we can to eradicate impediments to registration and voting - starting with a clear and accessible voter registration process.
Thank you for the opportunity to share our views.
J. Gerald Hebert
Executive Director & Director of Litigation
Campaign Legal Center