Thursday, May 29, 2008

Battles Over Voter Rights Brewing in Texas

2 Voter Rights Cases, One Gripping a College Town, Stir Texas

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“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.

Meanwhile, the attorney general, Greg Abbott, is a defendant in a separate voting rights case that goes to federal trial on Wednesday in the East Texas city of Marshall, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision last month upholding Indiana’s tough voter identification law.

Arguing that antifraud provisions enacted in 2003 were being selectively enforced to intimidate minority voters who are largely Democrats, the Texas Democratic Party filed suit against Mr. Abbott and Phil Wilson, the secretary of state, both Republicans.

The suit, initially filed in 2006, contends that get-out-the-vote activists who help voters with mail ballots have been “interrogated, harassed and intimidated” by state investigators.

J. Gerald Hebert, the lawyer for the Democrats, said his first witnesses would be several elderly black women prosecuted on fraud charges for what Mr. Hebert described as help given other elderly voters in the mailing of early ballots in Texarkana, Fort Worth and Dallas.

Mr. Abbott and Mr. Wilson say they have a duty to prevent voter fraud. To complaints that any infractions at issue have been insignificant, they say that in pursuit of that duty, they must pursue violations of provisions like one that requires anyone mailing in a ballot to sign the envelope.

They say that “there is no evidence of any voters who have been unable to vote due to enactment or enforcement” of the provisions, which, they also note, were sponsored in the Texas House by a Democrat. Further, they say, there is no evidence that enforcement has intimidated anyone into stopping voter assistance efforts.

The Dallas Morning News reported on May 18 that all 26 cases of voter fraud prosecuted by Mr. Abbott had been brought against Democrats, almost all of them black or Hispanic.

But in their legal brief, Mr. Abbott and Mr. Wilson said that the state had brought voter fraud cases against Republicans as well and that “mere questioning” of people about activities that might have broken the law did not deprive them of a constitutional right.

The brief said the two officials’ position was strengthened by the Supreme Court’s Indiana ruling, on April 28, which allowed states, as a way of preventing fraud, to require voters to show photo identification.

The suit against Mr. Abbott and Mr. Wilson involves enforcement of provisions that make it a crime in certain cases to carry someone else’s filled-in early-voting ballot to the mailbox, to possess another person’s blank ballot or to provide early-voting ballot assistance to anyone who has not asked for it.

The case, to be tried without a jury before Judge T. John Ward, has put Mr. Abbott at odds with Judge Charleston and some campus activists at Prairie View, who say they once looked to the attorney general as a champion of their voting rights.

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.

Ellen C. Shelburne, the county tax assessor and registrar, who took office in January 2007, said she had recently been questioned by investigators from Mr. Abbott’s office and had told them that she knew nothing about the matter. Jerry Strickland, a spokesman for Mr. Abbott, said, “We cannot comment on ongoing investigations.”

Jamie Hais, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, said, “We do have an ongoing investigation into the matter,” but declined to comment further.

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.

Patrick W. Mizell, a lawyer for the firm of Vinson & Elkins, which was hired to represent the school board, said that this was the first time the trustees had put out a guide but that he saw nothing wrong with it.

Anyway, Mr. Mizell said, “I don’t think a large number of Prairie View students have kids in the local school district.”

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