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As Texas Lawmakers Attack Voting Rights, GOP Official Aims to 'Build an Army' of Poll Watchers

"When I hear someone say he needs 'courageous' volunteers to be part of an 'army' that will keep an eye on voters in minority neighborhoods, I hear all the same old dog whistles with a slightly updated harmony."

A woman hands out "I voted" stickers to voters at the Rummel Creek Elementary polling place on November 6, 2018 in Houston, Texas. (Photo: Loren Elliott/Getty Images)

A woman hands out "I voted" stickers to voters at the Rummel Creek Elementary polling place on November 6, 2018 in Houston, Texas. (Photo: Loren Elliott/Getty Images)

Common Cause Texas on Thursday shared a leaked video of a Harris County GOP official discussing plans to "build an army" of 10,000 election workers and poll watchers, including some who "will have the confidence and courage" to go into Black and Brown communities to address alleged voter fraud that analyses show does not actually exist.

"What we see in this video is a concrete, real-world example of why it is a downright dangerous idea to expand poll watcher powers while removing the ability of election workers to kick a disruptive poll watcher out."
—Anthony Gutierrez, Common Cause Texas

The pro-democracy advocacy group's release of the footage came less than a week after the Republican-controlled Texas Senate passed legislation that critics charge disproportionately targets minority and urban voters by curbing their ability to participate in elections with restrictions like limiting early voting hours.

In response to the video, which Common Cause Texas described as "alarming," opponents of Senate Bill 7 specifically raised concerns about the legislation empowering partisan poll watchers to film, record, and photograph people casting their ballots—with the supposed intent to send the material to the Texas secretary of state.

The unnamed GOP official explains in the video that the goal is to build an "election integrity brigade" of "motivated and highly competent folks" in Harris County—which includes Houston, the Lone Star State's most populous city—who will "safeguard... our voting rights."

Using his cursor on a local map, the official also claims that a diverse, urban portion of the county "is where the fraud is occurring."

"What we see in this video is a concrete, real-world example of why it is a downright dangerous idea to expand poll watcher powers while removing the ability of election workers to kick a disruptive poll watcher out," said Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of Common Cause Texas, in a statement.

"Volunteer poll watchers who have no ill intent and who do not plan to disrupt voting would have no need to be 'courageous' about going into predominantly Black and Brown communities," he said. "When I hear someone say he needs 'courageous' volunteers to be part of an 'army' that will keep an eye on voters in minority neighborhoods, I hear all the same old dog whistles with a slightly updated harmony."

The Common Cause Texas leader tied legislative efforts to embolden poll watchers to the nation's long legacy of voter suppression targeting people of color.

"Giving partisan poll watchers the exclusive power to surveil voters and election workers and then secretly submit video and photos to the secretary of state and attorney general is an evolved tactic that has its roots in the Jim Crow Era," he said. "It should be a cause for alarm for anyone who cares about racial justice, privacy, and whether we want the state government encouraging partisan actors to spy on their fellow Texans while they try to cast their ballot."

Gutierrez pointed out that "there have been documented instances of poll watchers disrupting poll sites and intimidating voters by doing things like standing too close to voters."

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"If these bills become law, those poll watchers could now stand too close to a voter receiving assistance while they record video on their phone, and an election judge would not be able to kick them out," he warned. "These proposals would weaponize poll watchers and empower them to disrupt and delay voting at any poll site in Texas."

S.B. 7, which passed the state Senate in a 18-13 party-line vote, now heads to the Texas House Elections Committee, which advanced House Bill 6, another anti-voting measure, on Thursday. Texas is among the majority of U.S. states where GOP lawmakers this year have proposedor passed—bills that opponents call clear efforts to suppress the vote.

The Washington Post reported Thursday on the video—which Common Cause Texas released in full, along with a short version—and the response from a local GOP leader:

In a statement to the Post, the Harris County Republican Party said Common Cause was "blatantly mischaracterizing a grassroots election worker recruitment video." The party chair Cindy Siegel accused the group of trying "to bully and intimidate Republicans."

"The goal is to activate an army of volunteers for every precinct in Harris County," Siegel said. "And, to engage voters for the whole ballot, top to bottom, and ensure every legal vote is counted."

Gutierrez described the GOP effort quite differently.

"It's a new whistle but the tune is the same," he said. "The myth of voter fraud is frequently used to target the communities of color to delegitimize their vote and silence the voice of a rising electorate that simply wants to claim their rightful place in our democracy. It has to stop."

Other activists and advocacy groups concurred.

"This is exactly why we need to restore the full power of the Voting Rights Act: because discrimination against voters of color is still a huge problem in Texas," said the state's Poor People's Campaign.

H. Drew Galloway, executive director of MOVE Texas, pointed to the footage as evidence of why H.B. 6 and S.B. 7 are racist. The video, he said, "shows how partisan poll watchers are *already* targeting polls in Black and Brown neighborhoods in Houston—and these racist bills will allow them to film and intimidate voters."

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