AUSTIN, Texas — The Texas House could take up a sweeping elections bill soon. The Senate already passed its version, which would ban drive-thru voting, limit extended early voting hours, and give more authority to poll watchers. Opponents of the measures are trying to persuade Republicans to back off.
Young voters joined other activists and Democratic state lawmakers Wednesday at the south steps of the Texas Capitol hoping to sway the minds of Republicans.
“Instead of passing this law, let’s pass online voter registration, let’s pass same-day voter registration,” said Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City.
Jeffrey Clemmons was there, flanked by like-minded peers. The 21-year-old student of Huston-Tillotson University told Spectrum News 1 he worked as an election judge during last year’s primary runoff elections. He said he feels like the role of election judges gets misinterpreted.
“Election judges, we get there at 6 in the morning, we set up the polling place, and we make sure that everything runs smoothly throughout the day. If a voter is having an issue, we try to help them,” Clemmons said.
Clemmons said he is concerned about the provisions in Senate Bill 7 and House Bill 6 that could empower poll watchers. In the Senate version, poll watchers would have “free movement;” meanwhile in the House bill, election judges would not be able to remove watchers.
“Polling places should be open, they should be, you know, transparent, and people should feel comfortable when they come there. They should not feel like they are part of about to be a part of a criminal investigation,” Clemmons said.
The state’s Republican leaders are laser-focused on zero tolerance of voter fraud and they believe partisan poll watchers can help in that mission. Chad Ennis, a senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Election Protection Project, believes the bills can further secure elections.
“Poll watchers are there to watch the election judges, and I think some people [are] rightly concerned that poll watchers were being rejected for no reason by the people they were supposed to be watching,” Ennis said.
The bills’ authors argue poll watchers are “the eyes and ears” for the public and can provide a check on the system. In both proposals, watchers would be allowed to take videos, which opponents say unfairly targets those living with disabilities or need an interpreter. Ennis acknowledged that the role of assisters is critical, but said the organization wants to make sure there are tools that can help in investigations.
“If the Democratic poll watcher is doing something wrong, for instance, the Republican can pull out his phone and turn to the poll watcher and film it. That's a good thing. And vice versa,” Ennis said. “With these provisions, that when these incidents happen, it will no longer be a ‘he said, she said,’ it will be a ‘here's the tape.’”
But activists fear it could creating an adversarial setting in the polling place.
“I think that it's going to dissuade people from voting in general, and I think that it's going to give off the wrong impression to voters,” Clemmons said.
Separately, the Texas House passed a bill that expands Second Amendment rights, but that worries some voting rights groups. Members passed House Bill 530 by Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, which would give election judges with a license to carry the ability to possess handguns at polling locations on Election Day and during the early voting period. In a statement, Patterson said, "Our elections require security to safeguard our voting laws. By codifying this interpretation into law, Texas will improve enforcement of our future elections, discourage bad actors, and further ensure the safety of Texas voters.”
Charlie Bonner, communications director for MOVE Texas Action Fund, called the action “dead wrong” and believes state legislators should be doing more to to ensure voters feel safe at polling sites.
“This is a dangerous proposal and MOVE Texas stands in strong opposition to it. We must make voting easier, more convenient, and less of a burden for our Black and brown communities. We must continue to push forward and ensure that all of our voices are heard at the ballot box,” he said.