New Texas Election poll watchers: Enhanced protections concern some of possible voter intimidation

Rosie Nguyen Image
Tuesday, November 1, 2022
Senate Bill 1 in Texas calls for poll watchers for enhanced protections but concerns of intimidation this midterm election
One of the newest things you may notice while casting your vote are 'poll watchers.' But why are they there?

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Early voting for the midterm election is underway. This year, more eyes and ears may be observing the ballot-casting process at the polls.

This comes after Senate Bill 1 enhanced protections for poll watchers, one of many changes made after President Trump questioned the authenticity of the 2020 presidential election results.

"Now, in Texas, there's never been anybody questioning election outcomes. In fact, on Election eve, after the results were in, Governor Abbott said that we ran the cleanest, safety, and most secure elections in the country," Rice University Professor Rob Stein, who teaches political science, said.

"I think there are others whose voter confidence was low when their candidate had lost. The Republican Party swept statewide, but you'll notice that there are urban areas that are blue. I think that's where many supporters of SB 1 thought there was a need for greater scrutiny," Stein added.

Critics worry the enhanced protections may lead to voter intimidation at the polls. However, supporters say these volunteers are not there to disrupt the process, but rather to make sure nothing goes wrong.

Poll watchers are appointed by a candidate, party, or political action committee to support or oppose a ballot measure. This year, they are required by law to complete an online training certification course, before being granted free movement at polling sites. They are required to wear a name tag that identifies them as a poll watcher while at the location of a voting site.

"Poll watchers have complete and unfettered access to the polling place, to the operations, the setup, the conduct, the checking in the determination of eligibility, and the counting of ballots," Stein said.

A representative with the Texas Secretary of State's office tells ABC13 that more than 3,300 people have completed the program so far.

In Fort Bend County, both the Republican and Democratic parties have been putting out calls for months, to recruit registered voters to sign up and volunteer as a poll watcher. James Pressler, who is the communications chair with Fort Bend County GOP, said it's an extra layer of security to reassure skeptical voters, mainly ones who question election integrity following the 2020 presidential election.

"When this liberty is undermined and election integrity is not taken seriously, it makes people feel as if their vote doesn't count. You'll hear that sometimes, 'I'm not going to vote, it doesn't really matter.' But in fact, it does matter," said Pressler. "Whenever people see that we're taking steps to make sure everything is done fairly and accurately, it instills a confidence in them to know that their vote is going to be counted as it should be."

Voting rules prohibit cell phones from being used inside polling locations. SB 1 allows poll watchers to leave the vicinity, if they need to make a call to report any irregularities.

"The law allows for a poll watcher to challenge an election official's decision. Now the method of challenge cannot disrupt, prevent, or in any way impede someone from voting," Stein said.

Cynthia Ginyard, who is the chairwoman of the Fort Bend County Democratic Party, believes this is a solution to a problem that doesn't exist, citing that there was no substantial evidence to prove that anything went wrong in previous elections. Nonetheless, they've actively been recruiting poll watchers to place at locations where they believe GOP volunteers will also be present.

"Our election process is of the utmost integrity level. There is no hanky panky. We've received notice that the Republicans are particularly interested in our polling locations where there are predominantly Democratic voters and that's okay. We have nothing to hide and we will have a poll watcher there as well," Ginyard said. "Although we've had them in the past, we've never had to do it as widespread. This really was not our initiative, so to speak. We're being responsive."

It will be hard to tell what the impact of the new enhancements will be until the election is over. Stein said the law limits each candidate, party, or advocate for a ballot position to no more than seven poll watchers at each voting location. Texas State Representative Gary Gates of Fort Bend County, believes the effects will be minimal, as there are laws in place outlining their rights and limitations.

"It would be a Class A misdemeanor all the way to a third degree felony, if a poll watcher tried to intimidate a voter in any kind of fashion," Gates said.

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RELATED: Counties across Texas see less early voters now compared to 2018, data shows

ABC13 looked at the latest numbers from the Secretary of State's office in Austin and compared them to the early voter turnout in 2018.