AUSTIN, Texas — The fight over the future of Texas election law continues. While the state’s Republican leaders say there needs to be a “zero-tolerance” policy on fraud, activists and Democrats have sounded the alarm over priority bills in the Texas Legislature they believe could lead to voter intimidation. One government accountability group is circulating a video out of Harris County intensifying those fears.
The organization, Common Cause, released a Harris County GOP video presentation about recruiting for what a precinct chair called an “election integrity brigade” of 10,000 poll watchers in the Houston area. Parties in Texas get to appoint poll watchers, but it is where and why the Harris County GOP wants to send its “army” that is especially raising concerns.
“In the context of the enhanced powers that the pending legislation could give them just makes it all the more concerning,” said Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of Common Cause.
In the video, the unnamed precinct chair uses a pointer to highlight different parts of the county and says, “We've got to get folks in the suburbs out here that have, you know, a lot of Republican folks that got to have the courage. If we don't do that, you know, this fraud down in here is really going to continue.”
“They're talking about people that need the courage to go into these Black and brown communities in Harris County, and it's the use of the word ‘courage’ that makes you wonder, like, ‘What, what, why do you need to be courageous to go into these communities, if all you're going to do is just stand there and watch?’” Gutierrez said.
Harris County GOP Chair Cindy Siegel said Common Cause is misrepresenting the recruitment efforts in the video and she believes the priority bills in the state Legislature do not suppress the vote, but rather encourage voter confidence.
“Common Cause is a radical leftist group that is blatantly mischaracterizing a grassroots election worker recruitment video in a shameful effort to bully and intimidate Republicans. Democrats need to stop race-baiting every issue,” Siegel said in a statement to Spectrum News 1. “The goal of the program is to activate an army of volunteers for every precinct in Harris County. And, to engage voters for the whole ballot, top to bottom, and ensure every legal vote is counted.”
The authors of Senate Bill 7 and House Bill 6 said poll watchers serve as a check on the electoral process. Both bills would allow poll watchers to film voters who need assistance, which leads critics to believe lawmakers do not trust caregivers.
Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, said in a recent interview with Spectrum News 1 that state senators heard testimony regarding people going up to voters they had no relationship with at the polls and offering to help.
“The poll watcher doesn't get to watch you casting your ballot. They don't see who you vote for, but the poll watcher has to have access to the whole process, except for the casting of the ballot, and that's important,” Hughes, the author of SB 7, said.
Harris County was at the forefront of implementing new options to help more people come out and vote during the coronavirus pandemic. Elections officials there offered 24-hour polling stations and drive-thru voting. But Republicans said those efforts were an overreach, and another part of those voting bills advancing in the Capitol would ban such voting options in the future. While nearly 2 million people voted in Harris County during the 2020 election, a bipartisan task force found 20 cases of wrongdoing required investigation.
"I don't see how this adds more security at all. I think it adds more chaos to the process," said Isabel Longoria, the Harris County elections administrator who came up with 24-hour voting.
When asked about the GOP argument of having more eyes on the elections, Longoria said, “My feeling is really not that we should have fewer eyes, but that we should have trained eyes. People who understand the law and people who most importantly are sworn to protect and uphold the Texas election code, not untrained partisan poll watchers who have their own motives and who knows what they're out there to do other than to create chaos."
SB 7, which was passed by the full Senate, would let poll watchers send photos, videos, and audio recordings directly to the secretary of state; however, voting rights advocates fear there is no punishment for distributing such content elsewhere, including on social media.
“They just really haven't given any thought as to what those videos could be used for,” Gutierrez said.
And activists fear that could be much more than just "watching" the polls.