Poll Watchers Need to Respect Voters' Rights

November 28, 2011

Published in the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

It has been a long time since voters were legally turned away from the polls in Texas because they were too poor to vote. Most of us recognize that explicit wealth-based voting restrictions have been relegated to the history books by now. Sadly, however, that hasn't stopped the King Street Patriots, a Houston-area political organization, from hosting a public discussion about whether existing laws make it too easy for poor people to participate in elections.

Last week, the group invited commentator Matthew Vadum to speak — at a fundraising event, no less — about a controversial op-ed he wrote earlier this year in which he equated registering poor citizens to vote with "handing out burglary tools to criminals."

While Vadum's views are clearly troubling, even more troubling is that he now has an audience willing to showcase his views for fundraising purposes. The King Street Patriots, and their affiliate organization True the Vote, want to recruit volunteers to act as citizen poll watchers inside voting precincts nationwide on Election Day 2012. While these groups claim that poll watchers are necessary to prevent voter fraud, the truth is that voter fraud is extremely rare in Texas (and the rest of the country). If we're not careful, this supposed cure for voter fraud could do more harm than the disease itself, causing disorder at the polls and, ultimately, undermining the integrity of our elections.

The essential problem is that it is all too easy for poll watchers to politicize the voting environment and create an adversarial atmosphere that can sully voters' experiences on Election Day or deter them from showing up to vote altogether. Although poll watchers are prohibited from interacting or communicating with voters under Texas law, these volunteers are not always trained by election officials in the specifics of state voting laws, which raises the possibility that these volunteers will not understand the limits of their role. Moreover, poll workers may be reluctant to remove these individuals when they disrupt the voting process for a whole host of reasons, including the fear that removing a disruptive poll watcher will exacerbate the polling place disruption.

Just last year, numerous allegations of harassment were made against poll watchers in minority communities around Houston. These allegations — which included incidents of poll watchers blocking voters from the polls — were serious enough that they led to investigations by the local county attorney and the Department of Justice.

In light of this history, and with all of the other problems currently facing Texas's voting system — including one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the country — the emphasis that groups like True the Vote place on poll watching seems misplaced. What's more, if these groups are taking their cues from people like Matthew Vadum, it is doubtful that they are receiving unbiased and levelheaded guidance about the rights and protections voters enjoy.

Indeed, the Vadum fundraiser highlights the grave potential for poll watcher discrimination next fall. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 34 percent of Hispanics and 30 percent of African-Americans in Texas live below the poverty line compared to 11 percent of whites. So what happens when a poll watcher believes that poor Americans should not vote? Nothing good. If a poll watcher were to allow this belief to cloud his judgment, minority voters could be targeted disproportionately — as they may have been last fall.

Voters should not have to choose between exercising their lawful right and avoiding a confrontation with aggressive poll watchers. Rather, they should have the opportunity to cast their ballots free from interference by private actors. Even if most citizen poll watchers do not ultimately share Vadum's belief that poor voters undermine American democracy, we should nevertheless be concerned about existing opportunities for poll watcher abuse.

State and local election officials must take steps now to ensure that all voters have a fair opportunity to cast their ballots safely next year, without interference from poll watchers. By ensuring that poll watchers are well-trained and understand the limits of their role — as well as the consequences for breaching those limits — election officials can counter some of the problems that an active poll watcher presence might create in 2012. Furthermore, by requiring election officials to immediately remove any poll watchers who interfere with the voting process, state administrators can reduce the potential for vote suppression and intimidation that these volunteers can create.

These safeguards can help protect voters and ensure that they have an opportunity to cast ballots safely and freely. That is the hallmark of true democracy.