Much of the media focus on young voters will be about voter turnout on college campuses this election season. But for activists at Prairie View A&M University (PVAMU), a historically Black university in Waller County, Texas, the problem isn’t getting students out to vote—it’s making sure they can. In the last 40 years, members of the PVAMU community have had to push back against voter suppression tactics, including gerrymandered districts, voter intimidation efforts and unequal access to polling places.
This discussion guide centers around a short video from Now This News and the Emerson Collective. It introduces the recent PVAMU alumnae who are fighting to ensure that, starting this year, students on campus get the same opportunities for early voting as the other, mostly white residents of Waller County.
Use this video and the recommended supplemental resources to help your students recognize the ways that voter suppression tactics can adapt over time. This guide can help you start a conversation with students about race, voter suppression and the work that young people like themselves are doing to ensure that all eligible voters can vote in 2020.
A note on teaching through a pandemic:
We recognize that not all educators will be sharing physical or virtual space with students this fall. Because of that, we’ve tried to design these discussion guides in ways that can easily work across classes, whether you’re meeting face to face, in a virtual classroom or through another remote learning model. We’re so grateful to you and all the educators doing extraordinary work in these extraordinary times.
Here’s how you might start:
1. Check Your Students’ Previous Knowledge
Check with students to find out what they know about the history of voter suppression in the United States. If they’re unfamiliar with the ways Black voters were disenfranchised before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, you might review some of the texts from TT’s Student Text Library, including this Story Corps account from one voter about her struggles registering or this transcript of Fannie Lou Hamer’s testimony at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.
You can also encourage students to consider the less obvious forms that voter suppression can take today. For example, you could teach about gerrymandering. Or you might ask students to look over TT’s voting ease checklist to consider some of the ways voting is easier for some Americans than others.
Students should also know about the laws regulating where college students are allowed to vote. They may not know that the Supreme Court has ruled that college students are allowed to vote in the districts where they attend school. Even if they do, they are likely unaware that this right was assured in the 1979 case Symm v. United States—a case that originated in Waller County when students at PVAMU were illegally prevented from registering to vote.
Finally, you could have students work individually or in groups to do some prework and research the long fight for voting rights at PVAMU. Here are a few articles to get started:
- It’s 2020 – Why Are Black University Students Still Fighting for the Right to Vote? (The Guardian, 2020)
- In Rural Texas, Black Students’ Fight for Voting Access Conjures a Painful Past (The Washington Post, 2019)
- Prairie View A&M University’s Voter Registration Issues Are Resolved, but Voting Barriers Remain (Texas Tribune, 2018)
- This Texas City Just Elected the Youngest City Council Member in the State (The Nation, 2017)
- One Texas School’s Long Walk of Political Engagement (PBS Newshour, 2012)
2. Watch Together and Clarify Student Understanding
Watch the five-minute video, “Students at Prairie View A&M Fight for Equal Voting Rights,” published by Now This News in partnership with the Emerson Collective on August 1, 2020.
If students are working asynchronously, you may want to provide these questions to help them focus their learning as they watch. If you’re meeting with students, try having them work individually, in pairs, in small groups or as a class to answer a few text-dependent questions. For example:
- According to recent PVAMU graduate Jayla Allen, what barriers have PVAMU students have faced when trying to register or vote?
- How was early voting different at the polling place on PVAMU’s campus than at other polling places in Waller County?
- What percent of voting-age residents of Waller County are members of the PVAMU community?
- According to Leah C. Aden, deputy director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, what other barriers to voting have PVAMU students faced?
- How long have members of the PVAMU community faced challenges to their voting rights?
- What are the two reasons PVAMU students wanted a polling place on their campus?
- What are two ways PVAMU students are fighting for their rights today?
3. Talk Together
The following questions can help students process their understanding of this video and voter suppression more broadly. For remote learning, they can also work well as prompts for online discussion board threads or individual short writing assignments:
- Were you surprised by what you learned in this video? Why or why not?
- Given what you saw in the video, do you think it matters that PVAMU is a historically Black university? Why?
- According to Leah C. Aden of the NAACP, Waller County’s decision to allow non-PVAMU residents an extra week of early voting denied to PVAMU community members is a form of discrimination. Why? What do you think the impact of this might be?
- The video outlines several ways that Waller County has restricted PVAMU students’ rights to register and vote over the years. Did any of these surprise you? Do you think these are common methods of voter suppression? Why or why not?
- Should PVAMU students and recent graduates be leading the fight to ensure members of the PVAMU community have equal voting rights? Or do you think others should lead this fight for them? Why?
- If you were a PVAMU student, how might you contribute to these efforts?
For more resources for teaching about elections and voting, check out our Future Voters Project.