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Texas Poll Workers: Rules and Constraints

Guardrails to ensure that Texas poll workers cannot disrupt election processes.

Published: October 13, 2022
View the entire Poll Worker Rules and Constraints series

In Texas, poll workers (also referred to as “election officials”) footnote1_yuez2pa 1 See generally Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 1.005(4-a); Office of Texas Secretary of State, “Handbook for Election Judges and Clerks: Clarifying Voters on Election Day 2022”, revised July 2022, https://www.sos.state.tx.us/elections/forms/judges-clerks-handbook.pdf, (last accessed October 12, 2022).  play a pivotal role in administering elections. Their duties range from physically arranging polling places to verifying voter eligibility and ensuring ballots are counted. Like other states, Texas has faced poll worker shortages in recent years. For elections to run smoothly, it is critical that government officials recruit enough qualified individuals to serve as poll workers. It is equally critical, however, that these poll workers serve in an impartial and nondisruptive manner.

Recent media reports have identified efforts around the country, including in Texas, to recruit individuals who subscribe to falsehoods about elections and the integrity of the democratic process as poll workers. To be sure, no poll worker should be prevented from participating in the electoral process based solely on their political beliefs. State and local officials can, however, take reasonable steps to ensure that poll workers set aside any personal or partisan beliefs, follow the law, and faithfully carry out the duties of their position.

Texas, like other states, already has many guardrails in place to prevent those who seek to undermine elections from qualifying as poll workers and disrupting election processes. These requirements and procedures are detailed below, along with further actions that government officials can take.

Legal Constraints on Poll Workers

Eligibility

All applicants, including political party nominees, must go through the appointment process and satisfy bipartisan representation requirements. In each Texas county, one of three types of county elections officers (depending on the county) administers elections: a county clerk, county election administrator, or county tax assessor-collector. footnote2_p8g8964 2 See, e.g., Tex. Elec. Code Ann. §§ 31.043, 31.071, 31.091.  Each county’s elections officer works with the county commissioners court (the governing body) to oversee elections. Two types of poll workers support these county officials: election judges and election clerks. Each election precinct must have one presiding election judge and at least two election clerks, one of whom also serves as an alternate presiding judge in the event the presiding judge cannot serve. footnote3_q9q5l0j 3 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. §§ 32.001, 32.031, 32.033.  Texas law requires that the presiding judge represent the political party whose candidate for governor received the highest number of votes in the most recent general election in that particular county, and the alternate judge must represent the party with the second-highest number of votes. footnote4_cocry3m 4 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 32.002(c).

Under Texas law, the county chairs of the two major political parties submit lists of election judge applicants to the county’s commissioners court. footnote5_x74kwko 5 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 32.002(c), (d). For political subdivision elections, the governing body of the political subdivision must appoint the election judges. Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 32.005.  If no lists are submitted, and after reasonable attempts to consult with the political party chair, the commissioners court may appoint judges from a list submitted by the county elections officer. footnote6_c7es78l 6 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 32.002(c), (d).  The commissioners court appoints eligible individuals from these lists before July or August of each year (the timing depends on county size), footnote7_udg9gkz 7 Counties with a population of over 500,000 must appoint judges before July of each year, while counties with a population of 500,000 or less must appoint judges before August of each year. Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 32.002(a). See also Texas Secretary of State John B. Scott, “Election Advisory No. 2021–07”, June 11, 2021, https://www.sos.state.tx.us/elections/forms/judges-clerks-handbook.pdf, (last accessed October 12, 2022).  although it may reject a party’s list if it does not contain eligible applicants. footnote8_8n6joqn 8 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 32.002(c).  Once appointed, the presiding election judge appoints election clerks for each precinct. footnote9_4o72ll1 9 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 32.031.  According to state law, election clerks should be selected from different political parties if possible, and the parties may choose to submit a list of eligible election clerks to the presiding election judge. footnote10_i00n1l5 10 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 32.034(a), (b).  If lists are submitted, the presiding judge must appoint at least one election clerk from each list. footnote11_js2xzxk 11 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 32.034(b).

Applicants must meet certain eligibility requirements under Texas law. Under Texas law, election judges must be qualified voters of the precinct in which they serve. footnote12_prcgrfz 12 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 32.051(a).  Being a qualified voter of the county suffices for countywide polling places and when qualified voters from the precinct are not available. footnote13_n3iljcx 13 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. §32.051(a), (b); Texas Secretary of State John B. Scott, “Election Advisory No. 2021–07”.  Pursuant to state law, county commissioners courts may prescribe additional eligibility requirements for judges by written order. footnote14_9yy2onu 14 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 32.051(a)(2).  Election clerks must be qualified voters of the counties or political subdivisions in which their precincts are located. footnote15_98iw1t9 15 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. §32.051(c); Texas Secretary of State John B. Scott, “Election Advisory No. 2021–07”.  Sixteen- and seventeen-year-old students may serve as election clerks provided they have written authorization from their parent or guardian and consent from their school. footnote16_ldz6p8i 16 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 32.0511; Texas Secretary of State John B. Scott, “Election Advisory No. 2021–07”.  State law prohibits individuals from serving as election judges or clerks if they: (1) are candidates for public office in a contested race on Election Day; (2) are a candidate’s employee, close relative, campaign treasurer, or campaign manager; (3) currently hold elective public office; or (4) have been convicted of an offense “in connection with conduct directly attributable to an election.” footnote17_n76m29h 17 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. §§ 32.053, 32.054-.0552.

Applicants must be willing to follow applicable laws and procedures. Texas poll workers must take multiple oaths. Before opening the polls, the state election code requires all election judges and clerks to take an oath to “not in any manner request or seek to persuade or induce any voter to vote for or against any candidate or measure to be voted on” and to “faithfully perform” their duties and “guard the purity” of the election. footnote18_h6pnfci 18 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 62.003.  Pursuant to an opinion from the Texas attorney general, judges also must: (1) sign a statement that they have not contributed or promised to contribute anything of value in exchange for securing their appointment and (2) take a constitutional oath to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States” and Texas. footnote19_iafpl0e 19 Tex. Const. Art. XVI, § 1. County clerks who serve as early voting clerks (i.e., the presiding judge for early voting) must also sign the statement and take the constitutional oath. Ken Paxton Attorney General of Texas, “Opinion KP-0140”, April 17, 2017, https://www.texasattorneygeneral.gov/sites/default/files/opinion-files/opinion/2017/kp0140.pdf, (last accessed October 12, 2022); see also Office of Texas Secretary of State, “Handbook for Election Judges and Clerks: Clarifying Voters on Election Day 2022” at 5.  Consistent with these oaths, commissioners courts can and should screen out as ineligible judge applicants who demonstrate an unwillingness to follow applicable laws and instructions, as should presiding judges when appointing election clerks. In fact, as is detailed above, county commissioners courts may choose to incorporate this as an explicit, additional eligibility requirement for judges. footnote20_abgsrgg 20 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 32.051(a)(2).  Applicants should not, however, be turned away solely based on their viewpoints or beliefs so long as they are consistent with laws governing elections. footnote21_pxjfwxm 21 See generally U.S. Const. amend. I.

Poll workers must complete training requirements. Texas law requires that each county elections officer provide one or more training sessions for election judges and clerks. footnote22_k12sg97 22 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 32.114.  These trainings must include, at a minimum, training materials developed by the secretary of state as well as specific procedures related to properly operating voting equipment, the early voting ballot board (for processing early voting results), and the central counting station (for processing Election Day results) when applicable. footnote23_gghrpxe 23 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. §§ 32.114(a), 125.009.  The county executive committee of each political party must also train poll workers from their party using the standardized training program and materials developed and provided by the secretary of state. footnote24_08qxufr 24 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 32.113(a).

Chain of Command

All poll workers must answer to their designated county officials. Under Texas law, each county’s commissioners court is charged with appointing election judges, and the presiding judge then appoints election clerks. footnote25_6zq7m1i 25 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. §§ 32.002(a), 32.031(a).  The commissioners court compensates both election judges and clerks for their work. footnote26_i718sjz 26 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. §§ 32.091, 32.093.  The county elections officer trains poll workers, and if they give an oral warning and act “with the concurrence” of the county chair of the poll worker’s political party, they may remove, replace, or reassign any election judge or clerk who disrupts a polling location or willfully violates state election law. footnote27_blksed9 27 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. §§ 32.002(g), 32.034(f), 32.114.  Consistent with these authorities and the oaths of office described above, poll workers must answer to the law and instructions of their county elections officer and commissioners court.

Poll workers are tasked with specific duties to create a clear chain of command structure. Texas law provides that the presiding election judge oversees and is responsible for the management and conduct of the polling location on Election Day. footnote28_njrt000 28 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 32.071.  Election clerks (including the alternate presiding judge) work under the presiding judge, who assigns their hours and tasks on Election Day. footnote29_4b1zw5g 29 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 32.072 (a).  To “facilitate and protect the integrity of the voting process,” state law requires that presiding judges treat all election clerks equally when assigning hours and duties. footnote30_7ymkf8c 30 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 32.072(c).  Election clerks’ tasks include, but are not limited to, physically arranging and preparing the polling location, processing voters and verifying eligibility, and helping the presiding judge examine, prepare, and count voted ballots. footnote31_gp9n1h1 31 See generally Office of Texas Secretary of State, “Handbook for Election Judges and Clerks: Clarifying Voters on Election Day 2022”.  The presiding judge must appoint at least two election clerks for each precinct and may appoint additional clerks as necessary within a prescribed limit set by the county commissioners court. footnote32_0jf13bl 32 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 32.033.

Separate and apart from the presiding election judge and clerks, Texas law also allows the secretary of state to appoint one or more “state inspectors” for an election if the secretary receives a written request for the appointment from 15 or more registered voters. footnote33_zkg7pjq 33 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 34.001; see generally State of Texas Secretary of State, “Election Inspector Handbook”, updated September 2018, https://www.sos.state.tx.us/elections/forms/election-inspector-handbook-2018.pdf, (last accessed October 12, 2022).  Inspectors may observe activities at polling locations and must answer to the secretary of state, who may terminate an inspector at any time. footnote34_m6zfm3i 34 Id.

Following Applicable Laws

Poll workers in Texas are further constrained by their duty to support and protect local, state, and federal laws. footnote35_m546r8z 35 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 62.003; Tex. Const. Art. XVI, § 1; Texas Election Code, “Constitutional Oath For Presiding Judge, Alternate Judge, And Early Voting Clerk”, July 2017, https://www.sos.state.tx.us/elections/forms/pol-sub/7–2af.pdf, (last accessed October 12, 2022).  Failure to do so may violate their oath of office, warrant removal, and result in criminal liability. footnote36_wxaeg9a 36 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. §§ 32.002(g), 32.034(f), 62.003; see also, e.g., Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 63.012 (designating the refusal to accept an eligible voter as a Class A misdemeanor); Texas Election Code, “Constitutional Oath For Presiding Judge, Alternate Judge, And Early Voting Clerk”.  Presiding judges also have a duty to address unlawful behavior in elections, including behavior by other poll workers and poll watchers. footnote37_154nuef 37 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 32.075 (imposing on election judges the duty to “prevent breaches of the peace and violations of [state election law]”); Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 32.075(g) (providing that the presiding judge may have a poll watcher removed from a polling place for violating the law if the violation was observed by an election judge or clerk).

Poll workers may not intimidate or harass voters. Federal law prohibits actual or attempted intimidation, threats, or coercion against a voter for the purpose of interfering with the right to vote. footnote38_lpzi4h7 38 See, e.g., 52 U.S.C. §§ 10101(b), 10307(b); 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3); 18 U.S.C. § 594.  Violators are subject to significant civil and criminal penalties. footnote39_skhc725 39 See, e.g., 52 U.S.C. §§ 10101(b), 10307(b); 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3); 18 U.S.C. § 594; Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 276.001.  Texas law further makes it a felony offense to harm or threaten any person who has voted for or against a candidate or measure or who refuses to reveal how they voted. footnote40_zj2czxy 40 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 276.001.  Examples of prohibited intimidation may include, without limitation, using insulting, offensive, or threatening language or raising one’s voice. footnote41_3oyr24y 41 See, e.g., U.S. Department of Justice, “Federal Law Constraints on Post-Election ‘Audits’”, July 28, 2021, https://www.justice.gov/opa/press-release/file/1417796/download, (last accessed October 12, 2022); see also Georgetown Law: Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, “Fact Sheet: Protecting Against Voter Intimidation”, last accessed October 12, 2022, https://www.law.georgetown.edu/icap/wp-content/uploads/sites/32/2020/10/Voter-Intimidation-Fact-Sheet.pdf.

Poll workers may not disrupt elections through disinformation. As detailed above, the state election code requires that all poll workers take an oath to faithfully perform their duties and “guard the purity of the election.” footnote42_2m12lig 42 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 62.003(a).  It also prohibits any person — including poll workers — from providing false information to a voter with the intent of preventing that person from voting in an election in which they are qualified to vote. footnote43_1nosdfc 43 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 276.013(a)(5); see also, e.g., United States v. North Carolina Republican Party, No. 5:92-cv-00161 (E.D.N.C. Feb. 27, 1992) (approving a consent decree in a case in which the United States alleged that defendants violated Section 11(b) of the Voting Rights Act by sending postcards with false information about voting requirements and a warning that giving false information to an election official is a federal crime to voters in predominantly Black precincts).  Spreading disinformation that undermines the purity of the election or aims to prevent qualified individuals from voting — including false information about who can vote, how and when they can vote, or other aspects of the election process, such as vote counting and registration list maintenance — may therefore violate the law as well as poll workers’ oaths and warrant removal.

Poll workers may not otherwise interfere with or attempt to influence voters. Under Texas law, poll workers may not stop qualified voters from voting or prevent a valid ballot from being deposited in a ballot box. footnote44_gfrh8e4 44 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 63.012(a)(2); see also, e.g., 276.014(a)(2).  Nor may poll workers influence a voter as to how they should vote or knowingly disclose how an individual voted based on information they acquired at the polling location. footnote45_j4g6dqs 45 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. §§ 61.006(a), 61.008(a), 276.013(a)(1).  In fact, Texas law requires poll workers to affirmatively facilitate voting activity. For example, poll workers must instruct voters on how to cast a ballot whenever requested. footnote46_zom9wy8 46 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 61.009.  And if a voter cannot physically enter a polling place, a poll worker must deliver the ballot to the voter at the entrance or curb. footnote47_so3uyl1 47 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 64.009.

Poll workers may not prevent eligible voters from casting a ballot. Texas does not allow challenges to voter eligibility on Election Day. footnote48_094t90x 48 2003 Tex. HB 1549 (repealing section 63.010 of the Texas Election Code, which provides for voter challenges).  Similarly, election judges and clerks have no independent right or discretion to determine who can vote and which ballots can count other than following the law and instructions of their election jurisdiction. For example, Texas law makes clear that:

  • If a voter is not on the list of registered voters for a precinct but presents a registration certificate indicating they are registered: (1) in the precinct in which they are trying to vote, or (2) in a different precinct within the same county and execute an affidavit, the voter may cast a regular ballot. footnote49_65bk4uc 49 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 63.006(a).  And if the unlisted voter does not have a registration certificate, they may still cast a provisional ballot if they sign an affidavit stating that they are qualified. footnote50_di3ufq4 50 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. §§ 63.009, 63.011.
  • If a voter does not have proper identification, they may cast a provisional ballot. footnote51_am5019e 51 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 63.001(g); see also Office of Texas Secretary of State, “Handbook for Election Judges and Clerks: Clarifying Voters on Election Day 2022” at 20.  Voters may also apply for a permanent disability exemption from the photo identification requirement or follow the reasonable impediment declaration procedure. footnote52_bnl1oqp 52 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 63.001(i); see also Office of Texas Secretary of State, “Handbook for Election Judges and Clerks: Clarifying Voters on Election Day 2022” at 19–20.
  • A poll worker cannot refuse to accept a voter’s photo identification document solely because the address on the document does not match their address on the list of registered voters, provided they satisfy other eligibility requirements. footnote53_zxl9zae 53 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 63.001(c-1); see also Office of Texas Secretary of State, “Handbook for Election Judges and Clerks: Clarifying Voters on Election Day 2022” at 22.
  • If a voter is at the wrong precinct (and in a county without countywide polling locations), the election worker must direct the voter to the correct precinct. footnote54_3dxbpmj 54 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 63.0051(b); see also Office of Texas Secretary of State, “Handbook for Election Judges and Clerks: Clarifying Voters on Election Day 2022” at 33–34.  And if the poll worker cannot determine whether the voter is at the correct location, the poll worker must allow the person to cast a provisional ballot. footnote55_i0k1wgr 55 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 63.0051(e). This requirement applies to general elections for state and county officers. Id.

Poll workers must assist voters in two-person teams. To ensure impartiality and fairness, state law provides that if a voter needs assistance in marking their ballot, they must be assisted by poll workers of different parties. footnote56_ljeyy2a 56 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. §64.032(b).  If two poll workers of different parties are not present, two workers of the same party may assist the voter. footnote57_jljw6zn 57 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 64.032(b).

Poll workers may not tamper with voting machines. In Texas, it is a felony offense to knowingly access a computer network, computer program, computer software, or computer system within a voting system to interfere with lawfully cast votes. footnote58_207wq7q 58 Texas Penal Code § 33.05(b).

Available Enforcement Mechanisms

Texas election authorities have broad authority to ensure that elections run smoothly and remain free from disruptions on Election Day. Available enforcement mechanisms include:

Screening process. As noted above, each county’s commissioners court appoints election judges, who then appoint clerks. footnote59_9dsnzi3 59 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. §§ 32.002, 32.031.  Commissioners courts also have the authority to create additional eligibility requirements for judges by written order. footnote60_1c77nk2 60 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 32.051(a)(2).  Consistent with this authority, and subject to time constraints, commissioners courts may choose to develop clear eligibility requirements (when appointing judges) and/or screening guidelines (when presiding judges appoint clerks) to ensure that applicants understand their roles and positions within the poll worker chain of command and are willing to follow all applicable laws and procedures.

Training content. State law requires county elections officers to hold a training session for all election judges and clerks. footnote61_niqhm7w 61 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 32.114.  At these trainings, county officials should remind poll workers about relevant laws and rules, including their duty to answer only to their proper chain of command. These training sessions also provide an opportunity for county officials to clearly explain the checks in place to prevent voter fraud or manipulation of the election process and provide context to correct common rumors and misperceptions. In fact, Texas law requires that these trainings be open to the public, providing an added opportunity to educate community members on these issues. footnote62_l881ymt 62 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 32.114(b).

Removal and replacement procedures. As detailed above, in the event that an election judge or clerk causes a disruption at a polling location or willfully disobeys state election law, that poll worker should be removed. footnote63_uemp0wo 63 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. §§ 32.002(g), 32.034(f).  If a vacancy occurs, the alternate presiding judge steps in to serve as the presiding judge, and the presiding judge appoints replacement election clerks (aligned with the same political party as the original clerks). footnote64_zxofn7y 64 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. §§ 32.001(b), 32.034(f).  To ensure that counties maintain an adequate number of poll workers in the event of removal or other vacancies, counties may choose to maintain lists of backup workers to cover staffing shortages.

Dispute resolution. From time to time, poll workers may disagree over election rules and procedures. County elections officers may choose to create a set procedure for reporting disputes up the chain of command so they can be resolved quickly. To minimize disruptions to the election process, county elections officers can also train poll workers — especially presiding judges — in effective dispute resolution methods.

Oaths of office. The oaths of office required for election judges and clerks provide a strong legal basis for preventing and addressing abuses by poll workers. footnote65_l3s4xi1 65 Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 62.003; Tex. Const. Art. XVI, § 1; Ken Paxton Attorney General of Texas, “Opinion KP-0140”. See also Office of Texas Secretary of State, “Handbook for Election Judges and Clerks: Clarifying Voters on Election Day 2022” at 5.

End Notes