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Texas Election Bill Raises Power Concerns Between Partisan Poll Watchers and Election Workers

Curbside voting designation outside Lubbock
Kaysie Ellingson / Texas Tech Public Media
Texas Tech Public Media
Curbside voting designation outside Lubbock

In the partisan stand-off between Texas Democrats and Republicans over Republicans priority election overhaul bill, some of the most significant changes...

In the partisan stand-off between Texas Democrats and Republicans over Republicans priority election overhaul bill, some of the most significant changes to election law concern the expansion of access, protection, and powers for partisan poll watchers. Opponents of the bill say, if passed, the changes would put more power in the hands of potentially disruptive partisan poll watchers – and take authority away from the election workers charged with ensuring that voting goes smoothly.Audio on whats at stake concerning poll watchers in the partisan stand-off between Texas Democrats and Republicans over election overhaul legislation

At the start of the second special legislative session, the Texas Senate passed the Republican-sponsored election bill, Senate Bill 1, on Thursday, after a fifteen-hour filibuster from Democratic Senator Carol Alvarado of Houston. The law still needs to pass in the state House to become law, but with a number of House Democrats still in Washington D.C., the bill is stalled without the quorum numbers to pass legislation.

The bill is nearly identical to one put forward during the previous special session. Last special session, author of SB 1, Republican Texas Senator Bryan Hughes of Tyler, dismissed opponents of the bill’s poll watcher provisions in a press conference following the bill’s public hearing.

“All this talk about turning loose these partisan poll watchers is crazy. The law today gives poll watchers authority to observe activities and that's not changing,” said Hughes.

“Most poll watchers who have testified happened to be retired, females, who didn’t look that intimidating to me, but they have a job to do, they are the eyes and ears of the public.”

Debra Kitchens fits Hugh’s description. She’s retired and has worked as a county election worker and volunteered as a poll watcher for the Democratic party in Lubbock. In the decisively Republican County, Kitchens says she’s never had or observed an election fraud issue in either role.

Credit Rob Avila / Texas Tech Public Media
Debra Kitchens at the Democratic Party office in Lubbock

“Being a poll watcher in Lubbock County is actually pretty boring because it was all so fair,” she laughed. “The Republican Secretary of State’s have given Lubbock County gold stars for how they run their elections; the Democratic Party knows it's extremely fair.”

As an election worker, Kitchens says she’s worked fine with people from all parties. Knowing the process however, she worries how the new law will affect election workers.

“There's going to be human error no matter what, you know, and it's usually not intentional,” she explained. “It sounds like poll watchers can do anything to intimidate election workers if an election worker makes a mistake.”

Relationship Between Election Worker and Poll Watcher

Under current Texas law, poll watchers are defined as individuals officially appointed by a candidate, political party, or specific political action committee, to observe the conduct of elections. Unlike election workers — who are paid county employees trained to administer the election and assist voters — poll watchers are partisan volunteers allowed to observe voting and counting, without communicating with voters or observing as they cast their ballots.

Their roles in elections require cooperation. Poll watchers are required to report to election workers at the time they arrive at their assigned locations and must wear the form of identification (such as a nametag that says “poll watcher”) given to them by election workers. A watcher is allowed to point out any observed potential violation of state law to election workers. The two share the same responsibility: to ensure the fair conduct of elections.

SB 1 wouldn’t change a poll watchers’ role; however, the bill gives poll watchers more autonomy to observe election workers within a voting location. Significantly, it creates a criminal offense for anyone to obstruct a poll watcher’s view and give poll watchers the power to sue or seek court orders against election workers who challenge their observation.

Troubled History of Texas Conservative Poll Watchers

Texas conservatives have a history of using poll watchers to intimidate minority groups. In 1962, in parts of Texas —as part of a national party campaign dubbed “Operation Eagle Eye” — Republicans mobilized 10,000 poll watchers to show up at voting locations in Black and Hispanic communities to challenge residents’ eligibility to vote.

 In Houston in 1986 — as part of a national “ballot security” program— Houston Republican stated they would send 200 poll watchers in 50 to 75 predominantly black and Hispanic precincts. Then County Republican Chairman, Russ Mather’s, made unverified statements accusing election judges in these areas of “doing anything to influence the election,” upsetting Democrats and local black precinct judges, who said the public announcement was intended to discourage voter turnout the area.

In 1988, Hidalgo County Republicans paid for radio spots in Spanish for Hispanics along the Rio Grande which warned that it was illegal to vote without citizenship, ending the ad spot with, “Remember, election officials are watching.” Then Attorney General Richard Thornburgh sent federal observers to the Rio Grande Valley in the wake of charges that the ads were a form of intimidation.

In a 2004 report to the Center for Voting Rights and Protection on Republican Ballot Security programs nationally, Rice University Professor Chandler Davidson noted that Texas was featured in a disproportionate number of the minority vote-suppression cases they reviewed.

"The GOP, having embarked on its race-based southern strategy a generation ago, has especially focused its attentions on these heavily Democratic populations in the Lone Star State," the report states. 

Recent Poll Watcher Concerns

In 2010 and 2020 formal complaints of poll watchers standing too close to voters were reported in Houston —a Democrat stronghold— to the Texas Attorney General’s Office.

During the 2020 elections, then-President Donald Trump called for supporters “to go into the polls and watch very carefully” – raising concern and confusion over poll watching. His use of unverified observations from GOP poll watchers to spread doubt about the election results and false claims of election fraud have further raised concerns over the party’s direction of partisan poll watchers.  

James Slattery, an attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project, says a leaked Houston GOP online presentation —published in April by the progressive group Common Cause Texas— is a recent notable concern. The presentation calls for recruiting an “army” of 10,000 poll watchers in Harris County for the 2022 midterm election. In the video, Bill Ely, a GOP official in Houston, repeats unfounded election fraud claims and highlights majority Black and Hispanic precincts in Harris County for Republican poll watchers to target.

“That is the voice of the poll watcher program itself, speaking, the actual people that lead the program made it clear that their program exists to recruit white volunteers from affluent neighborhoods and send them into minority neighborhoods to make it harder for people to vote,” said Slattery.

In a statement to The Post, Harris County Republican Party representatives described the online presentation as a “grassroot election worker recruitment video” that had been “blatantly mischaracterized” in what they called an effort to “bully and intimidate Republicans.”

Concerns Moving Forward if SB 1 Becomes Law

Slattery says empowering these poll watchers would make it difficult for poll workers to administer the election and protect voters.

“Under these bills, poll watchers would have all kinds of tools to say, ‘no, I'm not going to do what you think may be best for voting or voters in this polling place,’” he said. “When you take these things together it creates an incentive structure for poll watchers to be as aggressive and emboldened as possible and for poll workers to be as reluctant to regulate them and protect voters as possible.”

SB 1 would require poll watchers to swear an oath not to harass voters and was recently amended to include a state provided training manual. The bill doesn’t currently include what training content the manual would provide.

Texas Tech University election law Professor Mark McKenzie says if the bill were to pass, implementing training is an issue lawmakers must focus on.

“The concern here is that we may have untrained poll watchers who don't really know the law, who are either intentionally or unintentionally intimidating people, and this could happen with either political party,” he said. “If they're not trained or alternatively, too enthusiastic for their party, putting their party above other interests, well, then this bill isn't a good idea. It's all in the details of how this would be implemented.”

For Kitchens, the Lubbockite election worker and volunteer poll watcher, she worries if the law passes, “People aren't going to want to become an election worker.”

Final Note on the Election Fraud SB 1 Intends to Address

McKenzie noted that, considering how few cases of election fraud have been found by the State’s Attorney General Office, the poll watcher provisions in SB 1 are potentially unnecessary.

Our Republican Attorney General, who’s very interested in finding fraud, has only found a few cases.” He said. “There’s just not a lot out there.”

Out of 11 million Texans who voted in the 2020 election, data from the Attorney General’s Office reported only one defendant facing pending charges on election fraud in that time.

In total, counting the 2020 election and previous elections, the AG’s Office website lists currently 43 defendants, facing 510 collective pending charges.This conflation of pending charges against few defendants, noted by The Post in June, is common.

In March, Keith Ingram, Director of Elections at the Texas Secretary of State Office stated that despite pandemic complications, “Texas had an election that was smooth and secure,” adding, “Texans can be justifiably proud of the hard work and creativity shown by local county elections officials.”

In the public hearing last special session on the election bill, Jonathan White, Chief of the Election Fraud Section of the Texas Attorney General’s Special Prosecutions Division, compared the different interpretation of the AG’s number of pending cases by Democrats and Republicans to a Rorschach inkblot test.

While Democrats look at the numbers and see little need for legislation, Republicans see thing differently.

“I think our cases are a bit of a Rorschach test for folks that can look at the same picture of voter fraud that we, with a small team show, and you can see, ‘Well there’s hardly any in the grand scheme of things,” he said. “Or you can see what we found, that’s come through the filter of being detected, reported, investigated and prosecuted and see ‘that’s evidence of a greater problem’ and come to the opposite conclusion.”
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Rob Avila