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When Brazos County officials removed an early-voting location off Texas A&M University’s campus — a decision that spurred accusations of student voter suppression — at least one county commissioner cited poor voter turnout as a partial reason for the relocation.
But data shows it was one of the county’s most popular early-voting sites in recent general elections.
Commissioner Nancy Berry, who oversees the precinct that includes A&M, mentioned turnout at the Memorial Student Center as a supporting factor in moving the polling location to College Station City Hall for November’s midterms, according to College Station’s newspaper, The Eagle. And she similarly told the Houston Chronicle the location traditionally had “second-to-last in voter turnout” of the five early-voting locations — something that Kristina Samuel, an A&M senior and president of voter engagement group MOVE Texas A&M, said she was also told.
According to Brazos County in-person voting data reviewed by The Texas Tribune, the MSC had the county’s second-highest number of early voters in the 2018 and 2020 general elections. The county’s data shows that the MSC received 56,439 early-voting ballots in 2018. The number fell during the pandemic in 2020 to 14,717 early votes, but this was in line with dips at all other polling locations in the county.
When asked about these figures, Berry told the Tribune that what she meant by turnout was the amount of voters compared to the number of people who attend the school. She said the concentration of people on campus should have brought more early voters to the polling location.
“When you think of 70,000 people that are right there and then you have another [120,000] that are spread throughout the county, and that’s not the highest voting site, even though you have that high population of people,” she said. “That was the point that it was a lower turnout number relative to the rest of the county.”
But Patrick Flavin, a political science professor at Baylor University, said the high number of people who cast ballots on campus in the previous general elections should justify using it again. Berry had stated that she would be in favor of bringing the MSC back for early voting next year.
And calculating voter turnout by early-voting location isn’t so straightforward.
In Brazos County, there is one polling location in each of the four precincts — plus one at the county elections administrator’s office — for early voting. Registered voters in the county are able to cast their ballot at any early-voting sites instead of having to stick to a designated precinct
Flavin said that some students who voted could have cast ballots at other locations. And, he said, some voters who don’t attend A&M may have used the MSC as an early-voting location.
“To me, the raw numbers is a much more accurate test than based on how many people are in that area,” he said.
On the other hand, it’s true that votes cast at the MSC were among the fewest total early vote counts during the primary elections in 2022, 2020 and 2018. But Texas in general has historically seen limited participation in primary races.
For Samuel, whose nonpartisan group champions voter engagement, the lack of communication around such nuance was “extremely misleading.”
“They’re going to poke and grab any kind of evidence used to justify that decision when in reality, it was just not a well thought-out decision,” she said.
Beyond turnout, Berry has largely attributed the decision to move the location off campus to complaints from nonstudents who said navigating the campus was difficult. Since the original decision, officials have said eliminating the location was a mistake. County commissioners discussed the decision again last week, but ultimately decided not to restore the MSC early-voting location after local officials said it would be logistically difficult so close to the Oct. 24 start to early voting.
Flavin said research shows that when the distance to voting locations increases, the voter turnout decreases. Instead, officials should prioritize putting polls in population centers and near public transportation to maximize participation.
“Putting one on a college campus to me would make a lot of sense,” he said.
In the meantime, Samuel said MOVE Texas A&M is focusing on engaging students and raising funds for shuttle buses to help transport them to the polls. Berry said the commissioners are also looking at transportation support, though no plan had been ironed out by Friday.
“I hope all the students get registered and come vote,” Berry said. “It was a mistake and we’re trying to do the best we can to correct it within the means that we have possible.”
Disclosure: Baylor University, MOVE Texas and Texas A&M University 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.
Correction, Oct. 4, 2022: A previous version of this story incorrectly said that voters in Brazos County have been able to vote early anywhere in the county since 2016. They have always been able to vote early anywhere in Brazos County. Countywide voting on Election Day began there in 2016.