Naked City

More East Texas traditions

"It's traditional in this county," says Waller Co. District Attorney Oliver Kitzman, "that if you question anything about a political matter, you're a racist." Kitzman's sense of East Texas history is a bit truncated -- another hallowed tradition in Waller Co. is for white officials to question the voting rights of black people. It took a 1979 U.S. Supreme Court case to confirm that students at the county's predominantly black Prairie View A&M -- an institution originally created by the state of Texas to avoid desegregating nearby Texas A&M -- have the right to vote wherever they declare their residence, including the college they attend.

Although the Supreme Court's long-standing decision was recently reaffirmed by Secretary of State Geoffrey Connor, Kitzman remains reluctant to concede the obvious, insisting that state law is not precise in its distinction between "residence" and "domicile" and that he's intent on saving the state from a looming wave of nonresidential voters. Under pressure from African-American officeholders -- from local officials on up to U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston -- Kitzman is scheduled to meet this week with Prairie View students and reportedly will issue a letter clarifying his position. State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, said he understood that Kitzman was to concede that students have a right to vote where they attend school, but earlier this week, it sounded like Kitzman hadn't received the memo: "I agree students have a right to vote where they live, but there's some question as to where their legal residence is."

Matters may come to a head by Thursday, Jan. 15, Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, when organizers are hoping several thousand students will march to the county courthouse in Hempstead in support of voting rights. Several prominent black officials, including Jackson Lee and Ellis, are planning to attend. Ellis has asked Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott to issue a formal opinion on the residency matter, and some local activists are calling on Kitzman to resign.

The controversy was initially triggered by Kitzman's Nov. 5 letter to county elections supervisor Lela Loewe questioning the students' right to vote, to which Loewe responded that she will proceed under state standards, which allow students to vote where they choose if they meet the standard qualifications of citizenship, age, registration, and legal status.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Waller County, Oliver Kitzman, Prairie View A&M, Geoffrey Connor, Sheila Jackson Lee, Rodney Ellis, Greg Abbott, Lela Loewe

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