A Poll Watcher Watches People Vote

Rightwing poll watcher finds no problems in East Austin
by Published on

In recent days, it appeared that the tense voting situation in Harris County was going to spread to other areas on election day. The lead-up to the election got so hot in Houston that voting machines combusted into flames, which was followed by accusations by a Tea Party group, called the King Street Patriots, claiming that Democratic registration efforts were an attempt at large scale voter fraud.

The Patriots sent poll watchers to early voting as part of their campaign to “True the Vote,” which led to accusations by Democrats that poll watchers stepped over the line and intimidated minority voters. Then the Department of Justice decided to send observers to keep an eye out in Houston. If that wasn’t enough, word spread this week that the King Street Patriots were setting their sites on Austin.

I went searching for the militant watchdogs in precinct 426 in East Austin, where a coalition of Hispanic and black activists had launched a voter drive to increase turnout by 20 percent. It’s too early to tell if the campaign was successful at turning out votes — and voters were only trickling in to the polling place at Govalle Elementary around 3pm — but the precinct did attract the elusive poll watcher.

Michael Adams, a volunteer with the Travis County Republican Party, stood sternly next to the election officials, where he said he’d been standing for more than five hours.

Adams was at the end of his shift, so we stepped outside to chat. He said he’d come to look out for telltale signs of fraud, like bus loads of suspicious people coming in to vote, or people helping other people vote who were not authorized to vote, or officials allowing people to vote without registration. But he says he didn’t see anything like that going down. “I’ve been an election judge,” he says. “This polling place was a well-oiled machine.”

But Adams said it was important to have poll watchers to protect against skullduggery. I offered that if the Democrats are stealing elections in Texas, they haven’t been doing a very good job. “Donna Campbell is in a tight race with Lloyd Doggett,” he replied. “And I have Black friends in the Republican party from East Austin. The stories they tell me are hair-curling. They say there are dead people voting. There are people coming in to vote and being told they already voted—someone stole their vote and now they are turned away. The corruption happens in urban areas, which is controlled by the Democrats.”

Although there have been few documented cases of voter fraud in Texas, Adams, like many Texas Republicans, are convinced it’s a real problem. He calls it an “inescapable fact.” Adams says the best solution is a Voter I.D. bill. “People steal envelopes with names and addresses from the trash, especially in apartments in urban areas, and they use that to register and vote” says Adams. “Voters should have to produce a photo I.D. at the polls.”

Adams has been transformed by the politics of voting. He says he was a Democrat for 30 years. But when the Gore campaign challenged the election in Florida in 2000, he saw it as a naked attempt to steal the election. He’s been a Republican ever since. “Before that, I thought the Democrats were the good guys,” he said.

Adams believed the accusations leveled at “True the Vote” were overblown. “It seems impossible to intimidate voters while poll watching,” he says. “You’re not allowed to talk to voters. It doesn’t intimidate anyone — expect perhaps the registrar.”

But Adams admits that, at least at this urban polling place, the election was proceeding as it was supposed to. As he walked off, several voters approached the school, all of them democrats. Sally Salazar was upset that Obama hadn’t pushed harder for immigration reform. But she was excited for Bill White (“Maybe someday he’ll be president!). She said, “I’m coming in with my one vote, but with me are thousands of others.”

She meant that metaphorically.

Michael May is a former Observer managing editor. He’s now a freelance journalist based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.