Bills in several states would give new powers to poll observers – who work on behalf of candidates and political parties – to observe voters and election workers. Critics say this could lead to conflict and chaos at polling stations and misdirection of colored voters.
In Texas, a measure considered by the Republican-controlled legislature will give guerrilla observers the right to videotape voters while they receive voting assistance.
In Georgia, meanwhile, the controversial new state voting law explicitly states that any Georgian can challenge the qualifications of an unlimited number of his fellow citizens. The new law comes after Texas group True the Vote teamed up with Georgia activists last year to question the qualifications of more than 360,000 voters ahead of the Senate run-off election.
Most counties have rejected the True the Vote challenges, but Georgia̵
“If you believe that these challenges will not be targeted at racial groups, then you are crazy,” said Mark Elias, a leading pro-democracy lawyer who is suing on behalf of voting groups to stop Georgia’s law from entering force. “This will become a tool to suppress Republican voters in Georgia.”
The moves to empower party actors come after a record number of voters emerged in 2020. States have eased election rules to allow more mail voting and the use of cans to avoid the spread of Covid-19. This surge in turnout in countries like Georgia has helped Democrats seize the White House and the US Senate majority.
As part of their failed efforts to overturn the election results, former President Donald Trump and his allies have repeatedly argued that fraud could have occurred because observers of Trump-aligned polls did not have sufficient access to the voting process and census in several countries. There is no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 elections.
Around the country, Republican lawmakers responded with measures that give more power to observers in polls. A new analysis by the liberal Brennan Justice Center found that as of April 15, lawmakers in 20 states had submitted at least 40 bills to expand the powers of observers.
Proposed new forces in Texas
Poll observers are guerrilla volunteers who, as their name suggests, “observe” or observe what happens at polling stations. Their main function is to help ensure that their party or candidate has a fair experience of winning the election. Both political parties have them.
Federal law prohibits voter harassment, and most state laws do not allow poll observers to interfere in the voting process.
In Texas, bills moving through the state legislature will give them new power.
A provision in Texas entitles a polling observer to record images and sounds at a polling station – including the polling station if the voter chooses help “the observer reasonably believes is illegal.”
A separate measure prohibits electoral judges – the pollsters who preside over each polling station – from removing observers unless the observer “knowingly or intentionally” tries to “influence another’s independent exercise in the presence of the ballot paper or during the voting process.” . “
It also threatens election workers with wrongdoing, as it deliberately prevents polling observers from observing the process.
“It’s a monitoring role,” said Sarah Labowitz, political director of the ACLU in Texas, about the way the proposed laws address survey observers. “This really enables observers of polls and election judges.”
He described the filming as akin to a police camera that would help resolve disputes between poll observers and election officials. The law provides for the tape to be sent to the Secretary of State.
The Texas House of Representatives election floor could happen as early as next week.
In Florida, the requirement to observe during the comparison of signatures has raised concerns among election supervisors. In an interview Saturday on CNN’s New Day, Mark Earley, Leon County Election Supervisor, said the law would allow observers to see the ballots via video – after election officials were disturbed by poll observers. safe areas.
“But many counties don’t have the technology or the money to do that, or even the place to do it, so there are still concerns about that going forward,” he said.
Monitoring surveys and challenging citizens are a burdensome issue. State laws in the 19th century made it difficult for African Americans to vote and prove their qualifications – even after the 15th Amendment gave blacks the right to vote.
In Florida, for example, the challenged voter had to present two witnesses to vouch for him. But the law says election officials must know each of the witnesses – a study by the Brennan Center on the History of Electoral Challenges that describes it as a huge obstacle for black voters. Polling stations in segregated Florida were served by whites who hardly knew African-American witnesses.
Last year’s election was the first presidential competition since 1980 in which the Republican National Committee could conduct its own polling observation operations.
A federal consent decree banned the RNC from practicing for more than three decades after the National Party targeted black and Latino voters in New Jersey. The operation, conducted during the 1981 gubernatorial elections, involved the deployment of armed law enforcement officials outside polling stations in highly minority communities.
It also included the erection of placards warning that the area was being patrolled as a “national ballot security working group” and offering a $ 1,000 reward for reports of violations of state election law.
The consent decree ended in 2018.
Carol Anderson, a historian and professor of African-American studies at Emory University, said the new proposals are based on a history of voter intimidation that has long targeted colored people.
“What is embedded in this is the inequality in the system itself,” she said. “You know that someone who is black or Spaniard will not be able to get on the whites and start challenging these voters without a large-scale response from law enforcement.”
She called the wave of new laws “infuriating.”
“It’s infuriating because we’ve done this dance before,” Anderson said. “We know what Jim Crowe’s democracy looks like and the damage it is doing to the United States and its people.”
A provision of Georgia’s controversial new election law requires observers to monitor procedures at ballot boxes. But the measure, which could have a far greater impact, places new demands on addressing the challenges of voter qualification.
On the eve of the US Senate runoff, True True Vote has teamed up with Georgians to challenge the qualifications of more than 364,000 voters whose names appear in databases from the U.S. Postal Service and commercial sources by changing their addresses. .
Proponents of voting rights argue that change of address information is not a reliable way to determine eligibility and can be unfairly directed at students, military personnel and others who temporarily change where they receive mail but remain eligible to vote. in Georgia.
Most districts in Georgia have chosen not to meet the challenges.
But under the new law, local election councils must hold a challenge hearing within 10 working days of notifying the voter of the challenge. “Failure of the council of registrars to comply with the provisions of this section of the Code shall subject this council to sanctions by the State Election Commission,” the law added.
Elias said it would be impossible for election officials to meet the requirements for holding a hearing on any voter challenge when external groups address tens of thousands of such challenges. “These constituencies will have to stop everything and hold these hearings before the election,” he said. “What the hell should a county do?”
This inability, he said, could justify civil servants sanctioning local election officials and invoking other provisions of the new law that allow the state election commission to replace local overseers.
Voter challenges can lead to long queues and ballot chaos on election day, he added.
Representative Barry Fleming, the Republican architect of Georgia’s new law, did not respond to several requests for an interview from CNN.
Catherine Engelbrecht, the founder of True the Vote, has worked to clean up voter lists in Georgia as election officials prepare to send ballots in absentia to the runoff. Democrats John Osoff and Rafael Warnock dominated these contests, giving their party control to the US Senate.
In these elections, Georgia relied on the coincidence of signatures in absentee voting. The new law now requires voter identification to vote for absentees.
Engelbrecht, who rose to conservative politics as a tea party activist in Texas, is aggressively pursuing allegations of voter fraud, including in the 2020 election.
In an interview with CNN, Engelbrecht said the challenges she supports in Georgia involve so many voters because she took a broad brush – researching voter lists in each of the state’s 159 counties to avoid targeting any particular group of voters.
“We as a state must agree that the accuracy of the vote is important,” Engelbrecht said. “There has to be some standard to make sure that when people walk away, we don’t send a live vote that doesn’t require any standard or identification or follow-up once it’s open and voted. just begs for contradictions. “
This story has been updated with additional information.
CNN’s Kelly Mena contributed to this report.