Why are Texas Republicans obsessed with poll watchers?

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On Thursday, the Texas House Elections Committee held its second hearing over House Bill 6, one of two “election integrity” bills being prioritized by Texas Republicans this session.

If passed, HB 6 would prohibit election officials from distributing mail ballot applications unless specifically requested by voters, make it more difficult to assist disabled Texans in voting by requiring a submission form, and empower campaign or party-picked poll watchers in voting locations. 

The latter makes up a particularly large portion of the bill. 

Under Texas law, poll watchers are allowed to observe any activity conducted at polling locations, including the counting and verification of votes, as well as inspection of voting machines and delivery of election records. They are not allowed to talk to election officials about the election (unless about an irregularity or violation of the law) and are also prohibited from speaking with voters. 

They are not the “eyes and ears of the public,” as Texas Republicans arguing in favor of the bill have frequently claimed. Texas election code makes it clear they are appointed specifically by and for political parties and candidates; “Help Me Stop Crooked Hillary From Rigging This Election!” read one poll watcher signup ad for the 2016 Trump campaign.

Texas law already prevents election officials from obstructing or preventing poll watchers from carrying out their observational duties, but HB 6 furthers that rule by clarifying that poll watchers could only be removed from a polling location if they are committing election fraud. 

The hand wringing over the removal of poll watchers stems from reports received by the Texas Attorney General’s Office during the general election that poll watchers were being dismissed for not maintaining social distancing with voters and election workers. 

In one instance that drew the ire of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, watchers at a polling location in Travis County observed the vote count through a glass window that had a microphone and speaker set up.  

“They can’t go and stand on top of the people doing processing, because it’s COVID and we don’t let them breathe on top of people, but you can see everything from inside the room,” said Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir at the time. 

But that kerfuffle alone is not responsible for the pages and pages of poll watcher-related rules that Republicans intend to add to the Texas election code. 

More likely is the paranoia spread by the former president, who amplified conspiracy theories in Pennsylvania and Michigan that poll watchers weren’t able to witness election fraud going on in polling locations in those critical swing states. 

“I easily WIN the Presidency of the United States with LEGAL VOTES CAST,” Trump tweeted days after the election. “The OBSERVERS were not allowed, in any way, shape, or form, to do their job and therefore, votes accepted during this period must be determined to be ILLEGAL VOTES.” 

Charlie Bonner, a spokesperson for the nonprofit voter registration group MOVE Texas, said the ongoing debate over House Bill 6 and poll watchers isn’t rooted in reality. 

“They are just trying to codify conspiracy theories that became popular in the 2020 elections,” Bonner said.

“We’re especially concerned about it because of Texas’ ugly and racist history with voter intimidation at the polls, from poll watchers,” Bonner said. 

Rose Clouston, the director of voter protection at Texas Democrats who managed the party’s statewide poll watcher program in 2020, said House Bill 6 was a solution in search of a problem. 

“What Republicans are claiming as the issues that lead to the need for this bill are what the rest of the country calls basic public safety measures, where poll watchers of both parties were asked to keep a respectable distance from poll workers and voters — not to prevent them from seeing and hearing things about the election, but to respect the social distancing that we’ve all been told to do for the past year to protect people from COVID,” Clouston said. 

“They are using those absurd excuses to give poll watchers unfettered access to the polling place in a way that we know is going to be disruptive,” Clouston continued, adding that under the language of the bill, a poll watcher could use racial slurs or sexually harass someone without being removed since they haven’t specifically committed election code violations.

Clouston said that the bill, which threatens election workers with misdemeanor criminal penalties for removing poll watchers, will only make it more difficult to find willing persons during elections. She said polling places in Bexar and Tarrant County closed during the 2020 primary elections because they couldn’t find election judges.  

“If you add these criminal penalties to them and you disrespect them and their work in this way, by saying that they can’t even run their policing place and do some basic things to protect voters in that polling place, who the hell is going to want that job?” Clouston said.

Photo: Edward A. Ornelas/Getty Images

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