Harris County Commissioners Ask Federal Officials to Monitor County’s Elections

03 Nov, 22

Letter to U.S. Justice Department Says State Law and Tactics have ‘Disproportionate Impact on Voters of Color’

Harris County Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia have asked federal officials to monitor the County’s midterm elections because Texas leaders plan to send a “task force” to monitor polling places as well as other concerns of voter intimidation. 

“We are navigating uncertain and seemingly dangerous waters in Harris County and Texas when it comes to our democracy,” Commissioners Ellis and Garcia state in a letter sent Wednesday to the U.S. Justice Departments’ Civil Rights Division. “Without appropriate protections in place to ensure every eligible voter can freely and fairly cast their ballot, there is great potential for voter intimidation and election subversion.”

The request cites a letter sent by the Texas Secretary of State on Oct. 18 to the Harris County Elections Administrator that announced preliminary and unsubstantiated findings from a controversial and not-yet-complete state-led probe into the 2020 elections. Former President Donald Trump called for the Texas audits despite staff from the Texas Secretary of State’s office providing legislative testimony in 2021 that the 2020 Texas elections were “smooth and secure.” 

“Given the suspicious timing of the letter and its content, we are concerned the letter attempts to both cast doubt on the results of our upcoming elections before polls even opened and to justify the Texas Office of Attorney General sending a ‘task force’ to Harris County that we fear may be used to intimidate voters and election workers,” Commissioners Ellis and Garcia say. 

The October 18 letter from the Texas Secretary of State noted that the Texas Attorney General’s Office would dispatch a task force “to immediately respond to any legal issues identified by the Secretary of State, inspectors, poll watchers, or voters.” Commissioners Ellis and Garcia in their request point out that “election judges, workers, and administrators—who have been subjected to harassment and intimidation across the state and country—are notably absent from the list of election stakeholders whose legal concerns the task force will respond to and investigate. 

“Given the ongoing threats to election workers in Texas and the expanded powers of partisan poll watchers under Texas SB 1, we fear that this omission sets the stage for intimidation tactics to be used against election workers and voters, especially voters of color,” their letter states.

Commissioners Ellis and Garcia – who mention support for federal observance from County Judge Lina Hidalgo, County Attorney Christian Menefee, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, two state senators and civil rights organizations – said the state’s letter appears to be the latest action in an “ongoing coordinated effort targeting Harris County voters of color and election workers.” They mentioned Senate Bill (SB) 1 that’s “considered one of the most restrictive voting laws in the country with a disproportionate impact on voters of color.”

The bill outlawed innovations Harris County developed in 2020 to make polling locations more accessible like drive-thru and 24-hour voting. Analysis showed that voters of color heavily utilized these voting options. Voting rights experts also argued and provided legislative testimony that SB 1 makes it harder for Spanish-speaking and other limited-English speaking voters to cast their ballot and receive assistance. The bill also expanded powers for partisan poll watchers that voting rights experts warned could lead to disruptions and intimidation at the polls.

“Those expanded powers are especially alarming given that in spring of 2021 the Washington Post, Texas Observer and other outlets reported on a Harris County Republican Party training video that detailed plans to recruit an ‘army’ of poll watchers to target communities of color in Harris County,” the Ellis-Garcia letter says. 

Those news reports described a training video where a party official shares a map of Harris County and focuses a laser pointer on Black and Latino neighborhoods while stating that they needed people with “the confidence and courage to come down in here in these areas…because this is where the fraud is occurring.”

In a statement issued today, Commissioner Garcia said: “The safety of our elections is of utmost importance. There are mountains of evidence that bad actors in state government intend to disrupt critical components of a free and fair vote count. We urge the DOJ to come to Harris County to monitor our election. For our Democracy to continue to thrive, it must be protected.”