The official cites widespread vote fraud, which has not been documented in Texas, as driving the need for an “army” of poll watchers to monitor voters at every precinct in the county.
Now, the government accountability group Common Cause Texas — which published the footage Thursday — is raising alarm that such an effort could instead serve to intimidate and suppress voters in metro Houston.
“It’s very clear that we’re talking about recruiting people from the predominantly Anglo parts of town to go to Black and Brown neighborhoods,” Anthony Gutierrez, the group’s executive director, told The Washington Post.
“This is a role that’s supposed to do nothing but stand at a poll site and observe,” he added. So “why is he suggesting someone needs to be ‘courageous’?” Gutierrez asked.
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.”
The video, recorded in early March, comes as the Texas Legislature considers a set of voting changes that would expand the role of poll watchers and limit other election officials’ ability to oversee those volunteers.
Republicans have proposed a raft of such legislation in dozens of statehouses across the country, insisting they are necessary to shore up confidence in voting systems. But nationwide, as in Texas, critics say these voting bills would only tighten access to the ballot box, particularly for voters of color and other marginalized groups.
The Texas state Senate last week approved Senate Bill 7, which has been deemed a priority by Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) and which would prohibit drive-through voting and limit extended early voting hours.
The bill would also allow give poll watchers — volunteers who are appointed by local party officials — the sole power to film and photograph inside the state’s polling locations, for the purpose of sending footage to the Texas secretary of state’s office.
Siegel denied that Republicans were trying to restrict voting through the legislation, saying the goal was to improve election security.
The video documents a presentation by a GOP official in Harris County, seemingly to other members of the chapter. Common Cause Texas said it obtained a recording of the presentation from a concerned citizen who received a link to the video.
In the video, the presenter lays out a plan to recruit and train more than 10,000 people to be spread across every voting precinct in Harris County — mostly as volunteer poll watchers, with others who can be nominated for paid roles selected by local elections administrators.
He said he lives in a precinct in the northwestern part of Harris County, outside Houston city limits, where 7 in 10 households are Republican.
Such an area would be a good place to recruit poll watchers, he added, but it would make for a “pretty safe precinct.” Instead, he said that “a lot of Republican folks have got to have the courage [to work outside the suburbs]. If we don’t do that, this fraud down in here is really going to continue.”
He also specifically mentioned sending poll watchers to monitor voting at Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church, a Black congregation that once hosted Martin Luther King, Jr. and that has played a key role in Houston’s civil rights history.
Gutierrez said the video highlights his concerns with the state Senate’s voting bill. He said the “brigade” of poll watchers would effectively be empowered to intimidate the most vulnerable voters.
For instance, he said, an untrained, skeptical poll watcher might see someone accompanying a relative who is blind, or a relative who doesn’t speak English, to the ballot box and then interpret the situation as an example of voter fraud and begin filming or taking photos.
The bill lacks any teeth to ensure that footage in fact goes to the Texas secretary of state, he said, and so it could then end up online, where trolls could attack someone merely for voting, or trying to help someone else do the same, in a perfectly legal way.
Neena Satija and Derek Hawkins contributed to this report.