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Texas avoided election violence. Advocates say voters still need more protection

 Signs and electioneers greet voters at the Metropolitan Multi-Service Center in Houston, Tuesday Nov. 8, 2022.
Michael Stravato
/
The Texas Tribune
Signs and electioneers greet voters at the Metropolitan Multi-Service Center in Houston, Tuesday Nov. 8, 2022.

Citing thousands of complaints received throughout the midterm cycle, voter advocacy groups want the Texas Legislature to bolster voter protection and education measures, and revisit recently passed laws that empowered partisan poll watchers.

After two years of fears of electoral dysfunction and violence, voting rights advocates breathed bated sighs of relief this week as Texas finished a relatively calm midterm election cycle.

“It was a little bit better than I thought, but I also had very low expectations,” said Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of the voting rights group Common Cause Texas. “We were really concerned about violence at the polls, and most of that was pretty limited.”

But he’s not celebrating.

Citing thousands of voter complaints received throughout the midterm cycle, Common Cause and other voter advocacy groups want the Texas Legislature to bolster voter protection and education measures and revisit recently passed laws that empowered partisan poll watchers.

The complaints ranged from long lines, malfunctioning machines and delayed poll site openings to harassment, intimidation, threats and misinformation. Common Cause recorded at least 3,000 such complaints on a tipline it monitors, Gutierrez said, and most of the harassment, misinformation and intimidation allegations came from voters of color, sparking fears that there were targeted efforts to quell election turnout in 2022 and future contests.

Other voting rights groups said this week that they saw a similar number of complaints. They warned that even isolated incidents can have reverberating effects on voter confidence or exacerbate political tensions that are already at dangerous levels.

“It could be chilling to thousands and thousands of voters,” said Emily Eby, senior election protection attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project. “We can’t underestimate the impact of fear entering the voting equation.”

The 2022 cycle was the first major electoral contest since the passage of Senate Bill 1, a package of voting laws that the Texas Legislature pursued in part due to unfounded claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 presidential election. The legislation tightened mail-in voter identification requirements, banned drive-thru and 24-hour voting and curtailed early-voting hours.

It also enhanced partisan poll watchers’ access to polling places, giving them “free movement” at sites and allowing for misdemeanor charges to be pursued against election officials accused of obstructing them “in a manner that would make observation not reasonably effective.”

Voting and civil rights groups warned at the time that the new law — coupled with rising election denialism — would disproportionately disenfranchise voters of color in Texas. In 2020, Texas had the most Black eligible voters in the nation, the second-largest number of Hispanic eligible voters and the third-largest number of Asian eligible voters, according to Pew Research Center. Texas has routinely ranked among the nation’s most restrictive for voting due to, among other things, its tight rules on mail-in and absentee ballots. This year, Texas ranked 46th out of 50 states for ease of voting, according to the Election Law Journal’s annual Cost of Voting Index.

Meanwhile, election fraud concerns have continued to flourish since 2020 — particularly among Republicans — and local election offices have been inundated with harassment, overbearing information requests from activists and threats of violence that led to an unprecedented mass exodus of longtime election officials across the state.

Many of those issues continued through Election Day. In Dallas, Black voters reported that they were asked to hand over their phones and smartwatches before entering polling places — which is not Texas policy and raised suspicions about intimidation.

In Beaumont, a federal judge issued an emergency order on Monday that prohibited partisan poll watchers at one site from shadowing voters. The order followed a lawsuit by the local NAACP that said Black voters were being harassed while voting.

“White poll workers throughout early voting repeatedly asked in aggressive tones only Black voters and not White voters to recite, out loud within the earshot of other voters, poll workers, and poll watchers, their addresses, even when the voter was already checked in by a poll worker,” the suit claims. “White poll workers and White poll watchers followed Black voters and in some cases their Black voter assistants around the polling place, including standing two feet behind a Black voter and the assistant, while the voter was at the machine casting a ballot.”

And in Hays County, election officials said they had to have a handful of partisan poll watchers removed because they were intimidating voters and election workers. The poll watchers were already known to officials there because of their ties to election-denial activist campaigns that have increasingly targeted Hays County.

“For the most part everything was fine,” said Jennifer Doinoff, the county’s Republican election administrator. “We had a few (poll watchers) that didn't really understand their role. … But there were also a few whose demeanor was aggressive and intimidating. I think they felt a little more empowered in this election.”

While voting rights groups said Texas may have avoided the worst of their fears — those of wide-scale violence and harassment — they said there were enough incidents to prompt lawmakers to reconsider parts of SB1 when they convene early next year.

“If I feel nervous that my life could become more complicated if I cast a ballot, I am less likely to cast a ballot,” said Eby.

Christina Das, an attorney with the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, said they also heard hundreds of complaints that did not involve poll watchers but were nonetheless concerning because they increase fears of retaliation or political violence by private actors.

“Most people don't know that voter intimidation doesn’t need to resort to physical violence or threats,” she said. “Intimidation is anything that chills voters from going to the ballot box.”

Among the hundreds of other incidents reported to voting rights groups: Threatening letters left at the homes of Beto O’Rourke voters, calling them “enemies of the state” and saying they “don’t have a gun to protect yourself and your family;” people wearing clothing with “Stop the Steal” and “Let’s go Brandon” (a slogan intended to insult President Joe Biden) that were allowed into polling places despite bans on political garb; reports of a Travis County precinct chair who knocked on doors to accuse people of illegal voting; mailers sent to predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods with inaccurate information about where to vote; and what Das said were “racially charged” insults that made some voters fear for their safety at polling places.

“One voter said she was brought to tears and had to leave the line to throw up,” Das said. “It was horrible to hear — there were cases of visceral, palpable hate at polling places.”

Voting rights groups are still collecting and analyzing tips, but say there is already sufficient evidence that the state should overhaul some of its voting processes, including by expanding online voter registration, curtailing the criminal penalties for election officials that are allowed under SB1 and bolstering voter education and outreach to combat misinformation.

Gutierrez, of Common Cause, suggested the state allow election officials to review notes taken by partisan poll watchers to quell fears that they could track and harass voters later on.

Groups also suggested that Texas undertake a review of intimidation and misinformation in the 2022 contest. Texas Secretary of State John Scott did not respond to a request for comment, nor did Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan or other lawmakers who helped push through Senate Bill 1, such as state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola.

Voting rights advocates also said the Legislature should better fund elections offices and expand voting options so Texas can avoid the long lines and machine issues that have for years been a feature of American elections. Those delays have at times given oxygen to voter fraud conspiracies.

For example, in Harris County, a rash of issues led to a one-hour extension of voting, which prompted a court challenge that forced Harris County to separate provisional ballots cast after the initial 7 p.m. deadline. The number and status of those ballots were still unclear as of Thursday, though officials have said they do not expect them to change the outcome of any races.

Eby, of the Texas Civil Rights Project, said that avoiding such dysfunction is crucial to stemming distrust in the electoral process more broadly — and before it leads to threats, intimidation or violence.

“A lot of the misinformation issues come from legitimate problems that have happened with machines,” she said. “If we are funding our election offices adequately, then it is harder to spread that misinformation because that misinformation won’t be based on a grain of truth.”

“The more that we fund counties, the more they can act as a preventive measure,” she said.

While Texas avoided widespread chaos this year, Gutierrez agreed that there’s still much room for improvement — particularly ahead of a 2024 presidential election that many expect to be contentious.

“Most of what we saw this year were pretty common problems in Texas,” he said. “But it’s worth remembering that a lot of the problems we have in Texas are because Texas does not invest in infrastructure or education.”

Copyright 2022 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Robert Downen | The Texas Tribune