Arrest throws Waller County voter registration dispute into further confusion

October 11, 2018

A field director for Democratic congressional candidate Mike Siegel was arrested at the Waller County Courthouse Wednesday after he delivered a letter demanding the county update the status of students at a nearby college whose registrations were thrown into question the day before.

Jacob Aronowitz, Siegel’s field director, was released after about two hours, according to Lisa Seger, the Democratic nominee for Texas House District 3, who arrived at the courthouse after the arrest.

The letter, addressed to County Judge Trey Duhon and Elections Administrator Christy Eason, took issue with Eason’s decision to require the students fill out a “change in address” form to correct the registration issue.

The arrest stemmed from Aronowitz’s decision to take a photo of a clerk receiving the letter, apparently to confirm it had been received, Siegel said in a phone interview. The clerk objected to having her picture taken and complained to a nearby bailiff, Siegel said.

“The bailiff then stopped Jacob as he was trying to exit the building in the stairway and apparently called the police,” he said.

Aronowitz then called Siegel, who is an attorney. Siegel said he heard Aronowitz repeatedly ask why he was being held and whether he was free to go. At one point, Aronowitz told a detaining officer that his lawyer, Siegel, was running for Congress.

“They say, what party is he from?’” Siegel said. “I don’t know why that was relevant.”

Though Aronowitz was released, county officials kept his phone, according to Seger, the state House candidate.

Eason was not immediately available for comment. Calls placed to the Waller County Courthouse were not answered.

Confusion arose Tuesday on the nearby campus of Prairie View A&M University when it was discovered that thousands of students could have registered under the wrong address, putting their voter registrations in jeopardy.

Tuesday was the last day to register for the November elections.

The mixup stems partly from how students get their mail: Because the university does not have individual mailboxes for students on campus, it provides a single post office box for every students.

In 2016, Waller County Elections Administrator Christy Eason, a group of university officials, the county and the local political parties agreed to have students write down 700 or 100 University Drive as their residence when registering to vote.

One of the addresses is for the university, the other for the campus bookstore.

In the March primary election, however, Eason noticed the 700 University Drive address puts students in the City Hall precinct, not the one on campus. The officials decided to let students vote at the wrong polling place — the one on campus — but required them to fill out a change in address form.

Eason said this would allow the county to ensure the students are sent to the right precinct in future elections.

Waller County Democratic Club President and County Judge candidate Denise Mattox said she worried the statement cards will cause too much confusion.

“The change of address cards won’t work. There’s hundreds of students registered this way and that could mean long lines. It needs to be fixed,” Mattox said.

The letter was signed by Siegel, Seger, Mattox and Waller County Democratic Party Chair Rosa Harris.

“We hereby demand that Waller County update its registrations of any student currently registered at 100 or 700 University to reflect that they are part of precinct 309,” the letter reads. “And further, we demand that Waller County require no further documentation of affected students.”

The letter goes on to say that the signees believe the action is “appropriate” because the county “advised student to use 100 or 700 University as their ‘Residence Address’ despite knowing that those students actually resided on campus, in precinct 309.”

“It was the actions of the County which led to students being registered in the wrong precinct,” the letter says. “Therefore, the County should take immediate steps to correct the effort resulting from its action…”

Siegel, who is running against Republican U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, said the arrest constituted “an abuse of power.”

“There was no reason to arrest or detain (Aronowitz),” he said.

The Houston Chronicle is participating in Electionland, a ProPublica project that will cover access to the ballot and problems that prevent people from exercising their right to vote during the 2018 election. This story is part of that project.

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