GOP move to dispatch election monitors to Harris County stokes concerns of voter intimidation

Local leaders are calling upon the federal government to intervene with their own observers.

By Rhonda Fanning and Glorie MartinezNovember 2, 2022 12:32 pm,

When it comes to free and fair elections, many on both sides of the aisle refuse to believe the other side is being honest. That mutual mistrust may be coming to a head in Harris County.

With under a week before Election Day, state and local Republicans have announced that they will be dispatching election monitors to the state’s most populous county to oversee how votes are being handled. Leaders in Harris County, concerned about voter intimidation, have appealed to the U.S. Justice Department to intervene with their own federal observers.

Molly Hennessy-Fiske, a Texas-based reporter with the Washington Post who has been following this story, joined the Texas Standard to discuss the reasons used to justify the monitors and some of the concerns surrounding voter intimidation. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: This seems to have its roots in the 2020 election cycle and GOP claims of election fraud and mismanagement. What specifically are Republican partisans concerned about? Why are they sending monitors? 

Molly Hennessy-Fiske: So the Texas Secretary of State’s office sent a letter to the Harris County leaders citing issues during the 2020 election– specifically issues with the voting machines and the way ballots were tabulated and the final count came out. And there were also issues that arose during the March primary with the new voting machines that were mandated under a new state law that lawmakers passed after the 2020 elections that rolled back a lot of voting rights – things like drive-by voting, drop boxes for mail-in ballots. So there’s a lot of dispute between the Harris County officials and the state officials about whether the changes that have been made have addressed the issues that arose in 2020 and in the primary.

Let me ask you about the substance of those issues. After the 2020 election cycle, there was a push from Donald Trump and Republican Gov. Greg Abbott called for a state audit of the vote tabulation in four of the state’s most populous counties, and that included Harris County. Did that audit turn up any irregularities that you’ve heard about?

Well, that’s part of what this letter was about – about revisiting issues that came up after the audit. But the Harris County officials that I talked to, like the county attorney, said that those issues have been addressed since and that, even at the time when they arose, they were addressed through things like what they call “chain of custody,” where the local workers are taking notes on everything that they’re doing and they have bipartisan witnesses – from Republicans and Democrats – who are watching everything that’s going on now.

Harris County officials, as I understand it, are concerned about these GOP monitors. What, in particular, are they concerned about when it comes to these monitors, and what’s the basis for these concerns?

Well, part of the issue is there’s multiple monitors, right? There’s monitors who come from the Secretary of State’s office. Attorney General Ken Paxton has said that his office is sending a team – an election integrity team – but it’s not clear where in Harris County they’re going, what their intention will be, what they will do. And then also, there’s the local Harris County GOP that’s sending monitors. So it’s these multiple groups and questions about what their goal is.

Well, GOP officials, of course, say that these observers are necessary to protect the system from voter fraud. But as I understand it, folks on the left are worrying that it could be keeping people away from the polls – voter suppression, essentially. How so?

Right. And concern, in particular, about voter intimidation or suppression in majority-minority neighborhoods or that some of these monitors might be deployed specifically to historically Black or Latino neighborhoods where they’ve been seen canvasing in the past leading up to the election. But I went out to the polls during early voting and talked to voters, and some were concerned about voter intimidation. But on the other side, there were Republicans and independents who told me that they appreciated the added oversight and that they didn’t understand why people would be uncomfortable with that, that they like the idea of more eyes on the process.

We have heard that in other parts of Texas, there have been voting officials who have resigned because of concerns of possible intimidation. And let’s just be candid: Are there concerns that tensions could ultimately result in conflict come Election Day?

Well, that’s true. There have been. Election officials have faced threats, actual threats, and have resigned. And some of their staff members have resigned. And they’ve cited the pressure that they’ve faced and the changed nature of their jobs in this current political climate.

And we have even had some reports of voters who have had, not exactly threats, but things like a voter or some voters up in the Dallas area who were told by people they thought were election officials, but it turned out they were these sort of volunteer poll monitors, telling them to take their smartwatches off or surrender their cell phones before they entered the polling place, which you’re not required to do. So things like that could reach a head on Election Day if people are being confronted as they go to the polls.

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