The Battle of Harris County
A firsthand look at early voting in Houston and allegations of voter intimidation
On Friday, Oct. 29, the last day of early voting in Houston, the walkway into Moody Park’s polling station in Houston looked like a gauntlet. Candidates glad-handed anyone who walked by, and hundreds of signs crammed together hawked various names. Everyone seemed familiar with the allegations of voter intimidation in Harris County by Republican-appointed poll watchers—allegations that were garnering national media attention. The U.S. Department of Justice had just announced it would send down federal personnel to watch election day proceedings in Harris County. The attention has largely been on poll watchers trained by Tea Party group the King Street Patriots, who started an effort called True the Vote.
The conservative group alleges that there’s massive voter fraud in Harris County, and the poll watchers they’ve trained have been accused of intimidating voters. But at Moody Park, Republican candidate Fernando Herrara, the challenger to Democratic state Rep. Jessica Farrar, said he knows of instances in which election officials have only shown voters how to vote the straight Democratic ticket. He believes that in certain polling areas, he’s losing 5 percent daily due to illegal voting practices that favor Democrats. Only a few minutes after he voiced his concerns that voters were getting manipulated, a Harris County investigator arrived to serve him with papers. It turned out Herrera had been accused of voter intimidation.
Before this election it was rare to hear of even one complaint from a voter. So far this cycle, there have been more than 55 in Harris County—many of which allege voter intimidation. True the Vote has promised it will have over 1000 poll watchers out on election day to ensure the process is fair, but so many poll watchers also heightens concerns about intimidation.
Voting and poll watching both have almost sacred status within the American electoral system, both seemingly integral parts of what it means to have free and fair elections. Federal and county officials have worked to implement safeguards to protect both groups—at times a task with conflicting goals. Now everyone is left to cross their fingers that the day can pass without incident.
Aspects of the True the Vote effort has been in the works since at least May. That’s when, according to records they shared with the state Democratic Party, the King Street Patriots brought in David Horowitz, a leader of the far-right movement, to speak to the group for the princely sum of $7,000. During his talk to the non-profit group, Horowitz called the assembled “Houston’s answer to ACORN” and urged the activists to challenge liberals and “go right in their faces.” “They hate you,” he said, and think “you’re a racist because you’re a Republican.”
The effort to recruit poll watchers soon began in earnest. True the Vote brought out a web video featuring Horowitz and King Street Patriots founder Catherine Engelbrecht. Set to a soundtrack more reminiscent of battle sequences, the video features photographs of black activists and voters, alongside people discussing voter fraud. “This is a war,” Horowitz says in the video. Republicans, he says, must win by large margins in order to win at all. Many have alleged the video plays on racial prejudice and white suburban fears, but True the Vote nonetheless gained enormous attention and began training its recruits. Now many say these recruits, riled up with racial fears and on a mission to find voter fraud, are intimidating voters, particularly in largely minority areas.
In Acres Homes, a Harris County neighborhood that’s 85 percent black, voters in the early-voting polling station all seemed familiar with the controversies around the largely white poll watchers, trained by the True the Vote and mostly appointed by the local Republican Party. “People are feeling very uncomfortable with the situation,” said a custodial worker in the building who watched early voting every day. He argued that the poll watchers were targeting black communities and ignoring largely white polling stations. “There’s nothing wrong with Acres Homes,” he said.
A KHOU-TV investigation found similar results when they visited a few polling stations—those that were largely white had no poll watchers, while those that were largely minority saw several. Kelly Shackelford, the head of the Liberty Institute and legal counsel for True the Vote and its founders, says that’s not accurate. He states that the poll watchers have been dispatched to 36 of the 37 early voting stations, though they will have to be more strategic in where they send folks on election day, when there will be many more polling places open.
Back at Acres Homes on Oct. 28, Gloria Alfred, a senior citizen with disabilities, needed her son’s help in order to vote. But the moment they entered the voting booth together, she says a poll watcher yelled out, “You can’t help her!” Her son said he explained that he’d been sworn in to assist, and the poll watcher backed off. What if Chris hadn’t known what to say? Gloria Alfred asked. “I might have been to the point where I couldn’t even have voted.”
By Oct. 28, Acres Homes already had seen seven separate complaints against the poll watchers, mostly for intimidation. It was easy to see how things could get tense. Around the lines of voting booths, ramps in the building created a mini-balcony, from which two older white male poll watchers looked down at the voters. Sometimes they wandered amidst the voting booths, crammed together. Since there was barely room for people standing in their rows, it wasn’t hard to imagine how one of the watchers could feel intrusive to a voter.
It also wasn’t hard to see how the poll watchers might get harassed. True the Vote and its recruits have claimed that numerous poll watchers have faced abuse and threats for simply doing their job. The custodial worker at Acres Homes said there had indeed been flare-ups at the poll watchers, when voters felt they came too close.
Poll watchers are not supposed to communicate with voters at all—verbally or with signals. Hovering over a voter is also forbidden, and when it comes to voter assistance, Texas law allows voters to select a helper, with a few minor restrictions. Of course, such assistance can sometimes look like one person voting for another or telling someone “how to vote.” The Secretary of State manual on poll watching goes over such details, as does the shorter True the Vote manual.
But in addition to state law, there is also strict federal laws around discrimination in voting. The Voting Rights Act forbids poll workers and election officials from targeting specifically minority precincts for different treatment or discriminating against voters based on race or national origin. However, neither the Secretary of State nor True the Vote offers any specific guidance on issues of racial discrimination, despite such prohibitions.
Gerry Birnberg, the chair of the Harris County Democrats, says the poll watchers are “overzealous and undertrained… Their intent is to observe massive voter fraud in Harris County and guess what?” he says. “There is not massive voter fraud in Harris County.”
Birnberg sent a letter to the County Attorney’s office, detailing various claims of intimidation and providing phone numbers for those individuals who made the claims. (Harris County Republican Jared Woodfill chair did not respond to requests for an interview.)
Shackelford does not believe there’s been sufficient proof that any of the poll watchers have actually engaged in voter intimidation, but he says there’s significant evidence of poll watchers being abused and harassed. He says the True the Vote training is in-depth and gives its volunteers a better education on the subject than the materials provided by the Secretary of State.
Shackelford says many of the problems come from minority districts that haven’t had poll watchers before. “Then poll watchers show up for the first time and [the poll watchers are] a different color than them and they just don’t like that,” he says. According to Shackelford, the controversy shocked the poll watchers and True the Vote organizers. “They’re just concerned citizens,” he said. “They had no idea that there would be this target at them for being poll watchers. They thought this was a good thing that everyone would like.”
The Harris County Attorney’s Office has spent the last three weeks finding ways to ensure that poll watchers are all very clear on the rules, hoping to avoid flare ups on Nov. 2. But according to Terry O’Rourke, the first assistant to the county attorney, the office only began to get concerned about the potential problems after a letter arrived in their offices, dated Oct. 6. “The evidence … strongly suggests that there is a large, well-funded concerted operation this year by the King Street Patriots, other Houston-area tea party groups, and others to illegally disrupt and preclude voting in minority areas,” wrote Michael Hebert, an attorney who came across True the Vote in his work representing Fred Lewis, founder of the group Houston Votes, in a defamation suit against the King Street Patriots. (The King Street Patriots also face separate lawsuits from the Texas Democratic Party and Texans for Public Justice.)
Hebert’s letter sparked action from the County Attorney’s office. O’Rourke said the office employees had already been focused on the elections after a fire in late August destroyed almost all of Harris County’s voting equipment. While the county ultimately borrowed enough machines to conduct elections, producing paper ballots as back-up, the officials were in touch with the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division in case the incident impacted minority turnout. Upon learning about the True the Vote efforts, the county attorney began consulting further with the DOJ.
Since then, County Attorney Vince Ryan has ruled that all recording devices are explicitly forbidden 100 feet from a polling station and that election officials are allowed to designate exactly where poll watchers may stand “to protect voters from poll watcher intrusion.” The Saturday before the election, Ryan held a telephone conference with all 1,600 election officials to review exactly what poll watchers may and may not do.
O’Rourke is quick to explain that his office wants to protect both the poll watchers and the voters. Poll watchers, he says, provide “vital checks” in the system. O’Rourke has attended training sessions and brought both the Democratic and Republican county chairs together to help run see that Election Day goes smoothly. “We respect the role they play,” he says.
Still, he says the office must also be careful to protect the vote, particularly in minority areas with histories of voter suppression. “You have to be trained to not convey messages to voters,” he says, which may be easier said than done. White poll watchers, he says, can easily intimidate voters without necessarily intending to, and that interference can be dangerous. “Especially when you have white people in small high minority areas,” he says, “it is essential they do not communicate with voters.”
On Oct. 27, the Justice Department made clear what role it will play in Harris County on election day: It will “prohibit discrimination based on race or membership in a minority language group; prohibit intimidation of voters; provide that voters who need assistance in voting because of disability or illiteracy can obtain assistance from a person of their choice.” The Justice Department’s focus on preventing racial discrimination will be new—so far, the County Attorney’s office has largely reiterated state law and emphasized concrete prohibitions, like forbidding cell phones. The federal laws are expansive when it comes to voter intimidation and discrimination, however, and if the federal officials deem it necessary, they can require polling places to stay open later or implement new practices for the next cycles, among other options.
Many remain hopeful none of this comes to pass on election day.
“I expect that the black turnout will absolutely not be impacted by actions that might be done to suppress the vote,” said U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee as she politicked around Moody Place last week. While she’s been accused of harassing poll watchers, Jackson Lee said she’d be out all weekend urging people to vote.
At Acres Homes, Deborah Williams was one of the many voters unconcerned by poll watchers. “Things like that don’t bother me,” she said. “I come from a history of people always being told they can’t do something.” Now that blacks have legal protection to vote, she says, “we just got to go out there and do it.”
Voters who believe they’ve been intimidated, harassed or otherwise discriminated against can report their experience to the Department of Justice Voting Rights Hotline: 800-253-3931; TTY line 877-267-8971.