The GOP’s push to monitor Texas voting in Harris County is sparking an outcry
The result could be a partisan showdown, in which two different groups of monitors face off on election day in this giant metropolitan region. This does not include the thousands of partisan poll watchers who are expected to go to polling places across Texas.
GOP officials and conservative poll watchers say intensive scrutiny is required to prevent electoral fraud and mismanagement. Meanwhile, voting rights advocates and local leaders say the GOP is scaring voters and poll workers — and undermining faith in the results for a county that Republicans are pushing hard to win control of on Dec. November.
The conflict reflects how mistrust has infused the election season across the country, giving rise to it fear of confrontation and even violence between groups with widely divergent beliefs about how best to protect democratic rights. The dynamics are particularly high in the cities of politically contested states, where Democrats tend to control elections and where Republicans have mounted aggressive polling campaigns.
The office of Texas Secretary of State John Scott (R) announced plans last month to send monitors to conduct “random checks” and observe vote manipulation and counting as a result of what he described as botched election security efforts in 2020. The alleged problems, discovered during a state audit of the Harris administration of the 2020 elections. , included improper security surrounding the electronic equipment where the vote counts were stored, the letter said. Harris officials have denied the allegations.
“We are writing to inform you that our ongoing audit of Harris County has revealed serious violations of the proper management of election records,” wrote Chad Ennis, who heads Scott’s Forensic Audit Division, in a letter dated 18 from October to the new of the county. election administrator, Clifford Tatum. “The urgency of this letter is to ensure that none of these process problems occur in the next general election in November 2022.”
The letter noted that Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton will send a task force to Harris to respond to any legal issues reported by inspectors, poll watchers or voters.
Last week, Paxton announced the formation of a “2022 General Election Integrity Team” across the state. The ad encouraged Texans to submit “information about alleged violations of the Texas Election Code.” It was unclear where the team would deploy, and Paxton’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Harris County struggled during the March 1 primary, the first major vote under new state restrictionswhen 10,000 vote by mail they were not counted on election day and officials faced problems with new voting machines and a shortage of poll workers. The election administrator after resigning.
Scott and Paxton’s interventions sparked an uproar from voting advocates, voters and Democratic leaders in Harris, who accused Republican officials of trying to intimidate election workers and voters in Houston.
Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said in an interview that he, along with County Executive Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner — all Democrats — sent a request to the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice so that federal election monitors are prepared to vote. and counting places in Harris.
Menefee said he received an email from Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general for civil rights, saying he was reviewing the request. He he said spoke by phone with DOJ staff, which typically releases a list of places where it plans to deploy monitors about a week out from an election. The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment.
“Our biggest concern is that we’re going to get to the impeachment trial and there’s going to be people from the attorney general’s office disrupting things in bad faith,” Menefee said of Paxton’s office.
Menefee noted that Scott and Paxton participated in Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election and supported state audit of Harris, which Trump had requested. He called the letter from the state “vague and ominous”, intended as “a political tool to undermine our elections”.
He also rejected the allegation that the 2020 election was not safe. He recognized the initial problems to collect the votes from 14 machines. But these problems have been documented and witnessed by the electoral judges of both parties, he said, which means that the machines with the stored vote counts have always been accounted for.
Hidalgo also attacked the intervention of the state. “The timing of this letter is – at best – suspicious,” he wrote on Twitter about the announcement of the secretary of state. “It was sent a few days before the start of early voting, potentially in an attempt to sabotage the county’s efforts by sowing doubt in the electoral process, or equally bad, opening the door to possible inappropriate state interference in the Harris County Elections.”
Hidalgo is in a heated re-election battle against Republican Alexandria del Moral Mealer, who promises on her campaign website to “do everything I can to safeguard our votes and ensure free and fair elections for voters of Harris County. This starts by cleaning up the voter rolls.” At a conservative forum earlier this year, Mealer refused to say that Trump had lost in 2020 — even though he said so more recently, during his general election campaign.
Sam Taylor, a spokesman for the Secretary of State, said that most of the reaction about the implementation of monitors is excessive, since it happens every year – and is actually required by law when a certain number of voters they ask, as happened this year. While 118 observers were sent to the state this year, the number was 250 in 2020, he said. The role of the monitors is to observe the electoral procedures and document problems such as security failures.
Harris is the nation’s third-largest county by population, after Los Angeles and Chicago’s Cook County, and one of its most diverse, with the majority of its 4.7 million residents Latino, black or Asian. . Some residents have balked at efforts to more aggressively scrutinize the work of local election officials.
“They don’t need people making an already difficult job more difficult,” said Clay Sands, 58, a real estate broker and self-described moderate Democrat who voted this week at a popular early voting location near downtown. of Houston.
The view was far different at a Harris County library branch in suburban Katy on Friday, where Johnny Wisniski, 65, a Republican and a public works employee in a nearby county, said he has little faith in the electoral process. He welcomed the presence of local and state monitors.
“I just think there’s going to be some cheating,” he said. “I think people will vote twice and the dead will vote. There will be fraud.”
In addition to government monitors, an increase in partisan poll watchers is expected at polling places in Texas this year.
Taylor said more than 3,300 Texans have taken his office’s online training course for poll watchers — a new requirement under a sweeping electoral law enacted in 2021. But there is no way to know how many of those will actually show up, or where, Taylor added.
Nadia Hakim, a spokeswoman for the Harris County elections office, said the office has received no reports of problems with voter observer misconduct, voter intimidation, voter or major malfunction of voting machines since Friday, the midpoint of the two-week early voting period in Texas. . Several election administrators said they expect a flurry of activity on Election Day.
Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of the nonpartisan voter education and advocacy group Common Cause Texas, said that while so far there haven’t been many complaints to his group’s hotline, he is concerned that poll watchers could overcome this year’s tense atmosphere. During a training last week, Gutierrez said volunteers reported seeing people without the required identification circulating in polling stations near voters.
A black voter complained to the hotline that when he showed up to vote at a polling place at a southwest Dallas community college, a white man outside told him he had to first give up his cell phone and smartwatch, Gutierrez said. He said the voter complied, voted and retrieved his items, only to discover that the man who took them “wasn’t a worker at that polling place.” They were just trying to be intimidating.”
A spokesman for the Dallas elections office confirmed several reports of poll watchers inappropriately trying to confiscate phones and smartwatches from voters. Under state law, voters must put their phones away, but they can bring them to the polls. There’s no need to get rid of smartwatches, he said.
One ingredient in the recipe for conflict, election administrators said, is divergent understanding of what is allowed and what is not. Taylor said his office has received dozens of calls from observers describing actions by poll workers that they thought were illegal, but weren’t.
Harris County residents Wayne and Lisa Nellums said they are concerned that voters are being intimidated by the state’s poll monitoring, especially their fellow citizens of color. But the couple, who is Black, said the added monitoring could also backfire on those they believe are trying to prey on minority voters like themselves.
“What they don’t understand is that when you try to intimidate them,” said Lisa Nellums, 61, “it just makes us want to vote more.”
Gardner said from Washington.
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