Black churches fill GOP-created Third Ward voter polling place void

Harris County Democrats recently accused county Republicans of proposing what they are calling a “disturbingly racist” voting locations map that overwhelmingly excludes Black and Latinx voters from having access to polling places for the May 24 primary runoff.

Some churches within these potential voter polling place deserts aren’t taking this news lying down, and have made their institutions available to serve as polling places.

Nailah Nelson

“Because of the economic hardship of serving as a polling place, because no other activity can happen in the space when used for voting, we weren’t going to do it this year,” said Nailah Nelson, manager of the Shrine of the Black Madonna’s Cultural and Event Center in Houston, and coordinator of the church’s national cultural centers. “However, when it was shared with me that there was a possibility that there would be no polling places in Third Ward, near TSU or near UH, we realized we had to step up in order to fight back against this gross injustice, regardless of the economic hardship it placed upon us.”

The GOP map in question has been the focus of searing criticism from Democrats because, according to them, the map contains zero polling places in Third Ward, Riverside Terrace, Texas Southern University, the University of Houston, Sunnyside, Trinity Gardens or the neighborhoods surrounding Hobby Airport. These areas are overwhelmingly populated by Black and Latinx citizens whose votes historically lean towards democratic party candidates.

GOP members have ardently and publicly denied their proposed polling place maps purposely seek to undercut the voting power of people of color. But some residents of the potentially impacted areas, including the presiding bishop of the Shrine, D. Kimathi Nelson, aren’t buying the GOP story.

“Democracies operate on numbers, where a numerical majority is placed in a position to have their interests protected,” said Nelson. “In order to even participate in a democratic process, you have to vote. So, the strategy seems to be not to make voting illegal for people of color, marginalized people and people with a progressive, liberal point of view, but to make it more and more difficult.”

Bishop D. Kimathi Nelson

Nelson uses as evidence for his position the fact that drop boxes that were conveniently placed around Harris County have been removed, and reduced to one for the entire county; the inexplicably high rate of mail-in ballots being rejected; and the closing of polling places that stands in stark contrast to the abundance of polling places made available to voters during early voting and election day voting for the November 2020 elections.

“The last option is polling places. And the state’s Republican legislature has placed polling places outside of the community that has the greatest number of Black and Brown voters. Harris County is where elections in Texas are won or lost. So, they have targeted Harris County to try neutralize the voting of Black, Hispanic and progressive people, in order to limit our ability to shape the election according to our will. The Republican legislature has strategically targeted vast areas, particularly of southern Harris County, to make sure that there are no polling places,” said Nelson.

Further northwest of the Shrine’s Cultural and Events Center, but mere minutes away by car, sits the iconic Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church (3826 Wheeler Avenue) which recently opened the doors to its new cathedral. Rev. Alexander Johnson, Wheeler Avenue’s executive pastor, said it was always in their congregation’s plans to serve as a polling place for the upcoming election, regardless of the GOP’s proposed map.

“Wheeler Avenue served as a polling location for several years,” said Johnson. “There was one year probably in the last seven or eight, that we did not serve as a polling location, and we were pretty disappointed about that reality. But we are currently serving as a polling location for the special election. We have historically sought to make Wheeler Avenue available, given the importance of having these locations within our communities.”

Rev. Alexander E.M. Johnson

The Deputy Chair of the Harris County Democratic Party Primary Elections Committee, Rob Icsezen, recently told a local mdeia outlet, “The Harris County GOP’s proposed list of polling locations, if adopted as presented, would be a violation of the Federal Voting Rights Act.”

Icsezen described the GOP-generated map as “a bad faith first step from Republicans in a process that should have started weeks ago.”

The Shrine’s Cultural Center has made its space available so there is at least one polling place in the general vicinity of communities surrounding the MacGregor Park area. With Wheeler Avenue’s commitment to continue serving as a polling place, TSU and UH students will have a convenient place to cast their ballots, once the voting maps are finalized.

“It’s our effort and aim to always make Wheeler Avenue a polling location for every election. It is an important experience to ensure that our people have access to the ballot. And we want to make our church part of the solution rather than problem,” said Johnson.

In the neighborhood where the Shrine’s Cultural and Events Center resides, several places have been used in the past as voting centers, including Peck Elementary, Palm Center’s Harris County Justice of the Peace, the Alice McKean Young Neighborhood Library located on the corner of MLK Blvd. and Griggs Rd and the Shrine’s Cultural and Events Center (5309 MLK Blvd., Houston 77021). None of those locations were part of the Harris County Republican’s proposed map.

The elections office is required by law to post notice of the locations by May 3, locations that are still being negotiated between Harris County Democrat and Republican leadership.