Voter Intimidation in Houston? The View from Acres Homes

Where are the controversial poll watchers? "Just look for the white people."
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For a longer analysis of the voting controversies in Harris County, see our story here.

Chris Alfred was prepared when he arrived at the Acres Homes Multi-Service Center to help his mother vote. Like most people in the area, he had already heard about the poll watchers who were coming to largely minority precincts to watch for wrongdoing. Acres Homes, which is over 85 percent black and where a plurality of households make less than $15,000 a year, fit the bill.

Chris spends his days helping his mother, Gloria Alfred, who’s been disabled by a stroke. When the pair arrived at the polling station, he got duly sworn in to assist her. The two entered the voting booth. Almost immediately, they say, one of the watchers appeared. “You can’t help her!” he proclaimed. Chris was ready for that, and said he carefully explained that his mother needed help, that he had been sworn in.

When I spoke with her a few minutes later, Gloria was still shaken, repeatedly doing an impression of the poll watcher’s, “You can’t help her!” What if Chris hadn’t known what to say? she asked. “I might have been to the point where I couldn’t even have voted.”

Whether it’s from the news or neighbors, voters in Acres Homes have heard about the controversy that’s taken on national significance. The King Street Patriots, a local Tea Party group, launched a giant initiative to bring poll watchers to various polling stations. It’s called True the Vote. According to its supporters, the project is meant to restore integrity to the voting process, which they believe is rife with fraud. Opponents argue the Patriots are trying to suppress turnout and intimidate voters—particularly minority voters. Amid lawsuits and calls for election monitoring from the Department of Justice, many eyes throughout the country are watching events unfold in Harris County.

I arrived at Acres Homes to see one example of the dynamic that’s getting so much attention. In the first week of early voting, through Oct. 25, the polling station at Acres Homes had seven incidents of voter intimidation, according to lists from state Democrats. Most of the “incident reports” describe the poll watchers hovering over voters and generally being intrusive; one report specifically mentions six King Street Patriot activists.

When I walked in, I asked one of the building workers how to spot the poll watchers. He laughed. “Just look for the white people!” Oh.

So I looked. Around the lines of voting booths, ramps in the building created a mini-balcony, from which two poll watchers looked down at the voters. Both older white men, they maintained a serious expression for the entirety of the two hours I was there. Sometimes they wandered amidst the voting booths. Since everything was crammed together, it wasn’t hard to imagine how one of the watchers could feel intrusive to a voter. There was barely room for people standing in their rows. (Because I was restricted from entering the actual voting area, I only got the chance to ask one poll watcher for an interview as he was leaving. He declined.)

One of the building workers, who’s been watching the scenes for over a week now, told me there had been as many as 11 poll watchers at the center, outnumbering the election officials at some points. “People are feeling very uncomfortable with the situation,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with Acres Homes.”

The man, who asked not to be identified, said he saw a racial dynamic in the poll watching. “What about River Oaks, Jersey Village?” he asked, naming mostly white neighborhoods in Harris County. “What about them areas? I don’t think they’re watching there.” According to KHOU-TV, he’s right. 

Still, he told me he believed the poll watchers themselves to be politically, not racially, motivated. “I think they are the eyes of the Republicans,” he said.

I watched as the line got a bit longer. The poll watchers wandered through, occassionally talking to an election worker about one thing or another. The watchers aren’t supposed to speak to voters at all, though few of the voters I interviewed knew the restrictions.

But while there were concerns, most of the people I talked to seemed unperturbed by the poll watchers. Some were supportive. “It helps all of us to be accountable,” said Bobbie Bryant, one of the activists passing out literature on a proposition at the entrance to the parking lot. With 25 years in Democratic politics, Bryant said with her eyes, this was not a big deal. While she dislikes the Tea Party activists, whom she said “don’t seem to know that Obama is not on the ballot,” she nonetheless approves of the poll watchers’ presence. Around her, other activists nodded along, voicing their agreement.

“I’m glad for it,” agreed voter Deborah Williams as she left the center after casting her ballot. “People watching me has never bothered me.”

The building worker, who’s been watching the dynamic play out, remains concerned. “It’s not preventing people from voting,” he said, though he argued the watchers are making the situation uncomfortable overall. He said he’s heard a lot of people who hesitate to bring elderly parents and grandparents to the polling station. “First thing [they'd] be thinking about is 1960,” he said.

Gloria Alfred who’s seen more elections than most, was more convinced than anyone else I interviewed that poll watchers are keeping people from voting. She argued the poll watchers targeted black neighborhoods “because a lot of us are kind of illiterate when in [the rules of] voting” and it’s easier to use the legalese to intimidate. “I imagine a lot of people feel they shouldn’t even come to vote,” she said.

While most of the people at Acres Homes weren’t as concerned, both supporters and opponents of True the Vote are getting ready. Everyone has called on the Department of Justice to monitor on election day in Houston—True the Vote argues that poll watchers are getting harrassed, while opponents argue that voters are getting intimidated. While both sides are fighting fiercely, on Thursday in Acres Homes, the debate only occassionally seemed to raise its head. But when it did—like in the case of Gloria Alfred—it left two voters shaken and cynical.