Naked City

AG OKs Prairie View Votes

On Feb. 4, state Attorney General Greg Abbott reaffirmed a 25-year-old federal court ruling that Texas university students who claim residency in the county where they attend school are allowed to register and vote in local elections. The AG opinion came in response to a request penned by state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, in connection with the resurgence of a dispute over whether Prairie View A&M University students are allowed to register and vote in Waller Co.

Back in 1978, several PVAMU students were indicted for voter fraud after registering to vote in Waller Co.; a state district judge dismissed the charges, but county officials appealed. In 1979, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a lower federal court ruling that PVAMU students who meet other eligibility requirements have the same "presumption of residency" for voting purposes as do other Waller Co. residents.

Apparently that decision wasn't enough for current Waller Co. District Attorney Oliver Kitzman, who penned a letter to the county's registrar on Nov. 5, claiming that the 5,000 students at the state's predominately black institution are not automatically eligible to vote in local elections. According to the Houston Chronicle, Kitzman claimed that the state's official position on the matter is not specifically laid out in either state statute on in case law. That position angered state legislators, prompting Ellis to request an opinion from Abbott.

Last week Abbott weighed in on the side of the PVAMU students, writing that "the determination regarding 'residence' ... involves both physical and current intention of the applicant," and that "every person is strongly presumed to have the 'right and privilege of fixing his residence according to his own desires.'" Abbott further opined that the DA is "conferred no authority to prevent someone from registering to vote." The DA may investigate "credible evidence" of voter fraud but may not pre-emptively prevent a person from either registering or voting in a particularly county if the person is in fact eligible to vote.

In a press release, Ellis heralded Abbott's decision and chastised DA Kitzman. "By refusing to allow students at [PVAMU] to register to vote, Mr. Kitzman is injecting his misunderstanding and misreading of the law into the electoral process," Ellis said. "I hope that the legal steps initiated today will stop the voter suppression and intimidation that has occurred in Waller County."

However, a number of PVAMU students weren't satisfied that Abbott's opinion is enough to stop Kitzman's efforts. The following day, the 60 members of the Prairie View chapter of the NAACP, along with four other students, filed a federal suit seeking an injunction preventing Kitzman from attempting to prosecute students for seeking to vote in Waller Co.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Prairie View A&M, Waller County, Oliver Kitzman, voting rights, Greg Abbott, Rodney Ellis

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