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Democrats demand Waller County fix PVAMU voter registrations

October 12, 2018

Democrats in Waller and Harris counties continued Thursday to push officials to update the status of Prairie View A&M students whose voter registrations were thrown into question over an address issue, but Waller County officials say they cannot do so at the instruction of the Texas Secretary of State’s office.

The Democrats — including 10th Congressional District nominee Mike Siegel, whose field director was detained and arrested at the Waller County courthouse Wednesday — also say the county should not require Prairie View students to fill out change-of-address forms, saying it is the county’s fault they were registered incorrectly in the first place.

The dispute comes amid disagreement from Siegel’s campaign and Waller County officials over Wednesday’s courthouse incident, in which Siegel’s field director, Jacob Aronowitz, was arrested after delivering a letter to County Judge Trey Duhon’s office regarding the registration issue.

Siegel said Aronowitz initially was charged with a misdemeanor for “failure to identify” himself. Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis reviewed the incident and “determined that there are no viable criminal charges to be brought against Aronowitz for this incident,” according to a post on Mathis’s Facebook page.

On Wednesday, Siegel, who was offering Aronowitz guidance over the phone during the courthouse incident, said he heard an officer ask Aronowitz which party Siegel belonged to..

Duhon on Thursday said he had spoken to the sheriff, who told him “that absolutely did not happen.”

Aronowitz stood by his account, saying Thursday that two sheriff’s deputies inquired about Siegel’s party affiliation.

The original dispute began Tuesday, the final day to register to vote, when confusion arose on the campus of Prairie View A&M University after it was discovered that thousands of students could have registered under the wrong address, putting their voter registrations in jeopardy.

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 student.

In 2016, a group of university officials, the county and the local political parties agreed to have students write down 700 University Drive 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, Waller County Elections Administrator Christy Eason noticed the 700 University Drive address puts students in the City Hall precinct, not the one on campus. 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.

The letter Aronowitz delivered to Duhon’s office, which was signed by Siegel, two other local candidates and the county’s Democratic Party chair, demands the county “update its registrations of any student currently registered at 100 or 700 University to reflect that they are part of precinct 309. … And further, we demand that Waller County require no further documentation of affected students.”

Duhon said the county cannot honor that demand because the Secretary of State’s office instructed officials to have the students fill out the change-of-address forms.

Secretary of State spokesperson Sam Taylor confirmed in an email Thursday the office “advised Waller County to inform the university that their previous guidance may be affecting the students’ voter registration precinct, and that the students should provide their dorm name as the concise description of the location of their residence and provide their university-issued mailbox as their mailing address.”

“If I were to move everyone that is registered at 700/100 University into Pct 309 without having their current ‘on campus’ physical address, I would have all of those voters registered in Pct. 309 with an address that is clearly in Pct. 310,” Eason wrote in an email.

Duhon said officials from the county’s elections office would be on campus during the next couple weeks to perform “address correction drives” in which they would allow students to correct their addresses before election day. He also said the county has committed resources to put extra poll workers on election day.

At a Thursday press conference at Prairie View A&M, Rep. Al Green, D-Houston, appeared with Siegel and a group of students and said he was concerned about the county’s additional paperwork requirement. In a letter, Green asked Attorney General Jeff Session Thursday to investigate the incident, citing previous incidents in which Waller County was accused of disenfranchising African-American residents and Prairie View students, including a 1979 case that reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

As for the courthouse incident, Duhon said Aronowitz delivered the letter to one of his assistants while he was away from the office. He said Aronowitz caught the assistant off guard.

“She’s looking down, and she looks up and he’s taking a photograph of her,” Duhon said. “She wasn’t sure why he was taking a photo of her. She put her hand up saying, ‘excuse me,’ because at this point she has no idea who he is or what he’s delivering.”

Duhon’s assistant requested that Aronowitz not use a photo that included her face, and offered “a number of alternatives,” Duhon said, including to take a photo of the letter in her hand, or to give Aronowitz a receipt proving the office had received it.

Aronowitz said he clearly identified himself to the assistant before the bailiff became involved.

Mathis appeared to support the decision to call sheriff’s deputies to the scene, writing on Facebook, “This, obviously in an era of doxing and high awareness of sex crimes being perpetrated against women resulted in sheriff’s deputies being called to assist.”

He commended the sheriff’s office “for their diligence in protecting county employees. Civility and good manners are not requirements of being a citizen of this great State of Texas, but they are certainly encouraged and appreciated.”

jasper.scherer@chron.com

Twitter.com/jaspscherer

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