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Brazos County officials could restore Texas A&M early voting location after pushback from students

By Alex Nguyen, The Texas Tribune

Brazos County officials could restore Texas A&M early voting location after pushback from students” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Brazos County officials on Tuesday will consider restoring an early-voting location to Texas A&M University’s flagship College Station campus amid fierce criticism about its removal in the lead-up to November’s midterm elections.

Since July, students at Texas’ largest university have challenged the Brazos County Commissioners Court for moving an early-voting site from the Memorial Student Center to College Station City hall — a decision students say would suppress the youth vote. County commissioners later acknowledged that their earlier decision was a mistake, but it has been unclear leading up to their meeting on Tuesday whether they would restore the location.

“Whether they realize it or not, it is voter suppression,” said Kristina Samuel, a senior and president of MOVE Texas A&M, a nonpartisan group that works to increase voting access on campus.

Commissioners voted 4-1 on July 5 to move the early-voting location for Precinct 3 — in which the university is located — from the campus to City Hall, though there will still be a polling location at the MSC on Election Day. Commissioner Nancy Berry, who oversees the precinct, cited complaints from nonstudent voters about difficulties navigating the campus and low turnout at the MSC as reasons for the change. The Texas Tribune has requested data for early-voting turnout in recent elections, but did not receive the information by late Monday.

Student pushback to the decision on early voting was initially tepid because many students were away for the summer, though Democratic Party Chair Amy Alge and Republican Party Chair Elianor Vessali did express support for keeping the MSC prior to the vote. The momentum picked up in August after The Battalion, the student newspaper at A&M, reported on the change.

In meeting after meeting at the Commissioners Court, students testified that the MSC’s central location allows them not only to more easily vote between classes but also help others become aware of the elections in the first place. The off-campus site, however, would require many to squeeze a 30-minute walk each way into their already busy schedule. And for those who drive, they would have to sit in traffic and navigate a parking lot that is smaller than what is available to them at the MSC. A petition in support of an MSC location, which was started four weeks ago, also currently has more than 1,400 signatures.

“We just know that this is going to de-incentivize students a lot, and voter turnout will be lower if we don’t do something about it,” Samuel said.

Texas A&M in College Station has around 70,000 students — a figure that is over half of the city’s population and about one-third of Brazos County’s. And according to data from the New York Times, the ZIP code containing the MSC voted Democratic in the 2020 presidential election while city hall’s skewed Republican.

This fight for students’ voting access is not rare. This year, Bexar County initially planned to limit early-voting locations before facing pushback from students and other community members. The county has since added five more sites, according to Community Impact. Those sites include locations at Our Lady of the Lake University, St. Mary’s University and Texas A&M University-San Antonio campuses.

The fight is also not new. In 2018, students at Prairie View A&M — a historically Black university that has a long legacy of fighting for voting rights — sued Waller County over allegations that it was suppressing their votes by not opening a poll on campus or in the city itself for most of early voting. This move prompted the county to expand some access two days later, though a federal judge would rule in 2022 that the students had not been discriminated against in this voting process.

Another legal challenge also almost arose in 2018 in Hays County as students at Texas State University at San Marcos alleged that the county was suppressing their votes by restricting early voting on campus. Following this threat, Hays County quickly increased students’ access for voting before and during Election Day.

“It’s a sense of Groundhog Day because we’ve been here before with trying to protect the student vote via campus polling locations, and then a sense of Whac-A-Mole because we’ve yet to see a set of policies that would protect them long term,” said Alex Birnel, advocacy director of MOVE Texas.

In response to the backlash at A&M this year, some Brazos County commissioners initially wanted to reopen MSC as the second early-voting location for Precinct 3. But a misinterpretation of the state’s election code — as Precinct 1 Commissioner Steve Aldrich pointed out in the Sept. 20 meeting — led the court to believe that it would also have to open a second location in all other precincts. That would have added challenges related to cost and poll worker availability.

County officials also repeatedly told advocates since August that it was too late to change the location logistically — despite it being legal to do so — due to various reasons including the resulting need to update ballots and the involvement of local elections. Early voting runs from Oct. 24 to Nov. 4, and Election Day is on November 8.

“I’m in favor of going back to the MSC for ’23, and I’m sorry that I made the mistake when I did and I apologize,” Berry said at the Sept. 20 meeting. “But I think we need to move forward.”

Other commissioners, however, raised concerns about how they have been misinformed throughout the process.

“We heard testimony that we can change it this year and then we heard other testimony that we can’t change this year, so again we’ve got misinformation,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Russ Ford, who was the sole vote against the change in July, said in the same September meeting. He also stated that he wants to reinstate the MSC for this year’s elections.

Berry has changed her mind since last week’s meeting. When reached by the Tribune on Monday evening, the commissioner said she would support reinstating the MSC as an early voting location for 2022 — if it’s logistically possible to make the change. She reiterated that it would be important to consider how the update would impact local elections.

“If the [elections administrator] says we can do, let’s do it,” she said.

Other commissioners either could not be reached for comment Monday or did not respond to requests for comment.

Ahead of Tuesday’s meeting to reconsider the MSC early-voting location, Birnel said MOVE Texas and other voting rights organizations are keeping litigation in their toolkit, but he would much more prefer building relationships with local and state governments to engage the youth vote.

“We’d love to see counties create the kind of infrastructure that makes democracy possible and also as a public good,” he said.

Similarly, Samuel said her organization has been looking into possible legal actions, but she noted that the chapter is also “not waiting until the last minute to find an alternate method” like a bus that could transport students directly from MSC to City Hall. And even without the current challenge to reopen the MSC, Samuel said she knew this election cycle would be significant because it is the first major one following the passage of Texas’ Senate Bill 1, which curtails various local voting access initiatives.

“It’s definitely made this a lot more emotionally heightened and definitely energized us,” Samuel said. “There’s a lot at stake here.”

Disclosure: MOVE Texas, Texas A&M University and New York Times have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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