Poll watchers in Harris County, Texas — where a Tea Party group launched an aggressive anti-voter fraud effort — were accused of “hovering over” voters, “getting into election workers’ faces” and blocking or disrupting lines of voters who were waiting to cast their ballots as early voting got underway yesterday.
Now, TPMMuckraker has learned, the Justice Department has interviewed witnesses about the alleged intimidation and is gathering information about the so-called anti-voter fraud effort.
“We are currently gathering information regarding this matter,” Justice Department spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa said in a statement confirming the Civil Rights Division’s involvement.
Harris County, the biggest county in the state, is where a Tea Party group called the King Street Patriots launched an anti-voter fraud initiative called “True the Vote,” which recruited poll watchers and amped up fears over groups like the community organizing group ACORN.
Chad Dunn, a lawyer who is representing the Texas Democratic Party, told TPMMuckraker a number of witnesses have been interviewed by Civil Rights Division lawyers already. “We’ve gotten a number of reports — quite a few out of the Houston area — that poll watchers, King Street Patriot training poll watchers, are following a voter after they’ve checked them out and stand right behind them,” Dunn said. There’s at least a dozen reports that they could confirm with witnesses, he said. “Interestingly, it’s all in the polling places in Hispanic and African-American areas,” he added.
Terry O’Rourke, the first assistant in the Harris County Attorney’s office, told TPMMuckraker that there have been allegations of poll watchers talking to voters, which they are not allowed to do, as well as hovering over voters as they are waiting to vote. He said the complaints came from Kashmere Gardens, Moody Park, Sunnyside and other predominantly minority neighborhoods of the county.
“There are far more poll watchers in this election than we’ve ever had before. The Republican Party has 300 poll watchers on their ready list,” O’Rourke said. He can’t say for certain that they are connected to the Tea Party. “None of the people who walk in the door have Tea Party buttons on,” he said.
Former Voting Section Chief John Tanner, who resigned from the Justice Department in 2007 after he commented that voter identification laws were an imposition on white people because “minorities die first,” is representing the county attorney’s office.
“There are a lot of allegations out there on both sides. I think the county’s perspective is that they are trying to do everything possible to protect the rights of all voters,” Tanner told TPMMuckraker. “[The county has] faced a lot of difficulties,” Tanner noted, including the fact that the warehouse storing voting machines burnt to the ground.
O’Rourke said Tanner made a request on Tuesday to have federal election monitors sent to the county. County Attorney Vince Ryan met on Tuesday with the Democratic and Republican chairmen in the county after he received complaints of possible voter intimidation on the first day of early voting as well, the same day the Houston Chronicle printed a story detailing the allegations
O’Rourke said the chairs agreed to share their lists of poll watchers with one another, and Ryan sent out a notice to all of the election judges and alternates on Tuesday, reiterating the role of the poll watchers.
Meanwhile, the Texas Democratic Party is accusing the Tea Party group of working alongside the GOP on their anti-voter fraud effort. The Texas Democratic Party expanded a lawsuit alleging collusion between the GOP and the Green Party to include the King Street Patriot Tea Party group, the Austin Chronicle reports. The GOP’s website features a page promoting poll watching initiatives.
Voting rights experts have said they are concerned that independent groups like this Tea Party group would not be sure of the rules.
Wendy Weiser, Deputy Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center, told TPMMuckraker last week, “It’s much harder to disseminate information because there’s not a central repository of information that everybody’s listening to. It seems less likely they’ll have some good information on what’s allowed and what’s not allowed.”
“A lot of folks are probably newcomers to the political process and so there’s some of that newness as well,” she added. “We are worried by these disaggregated private policing efforts that… are going to be much more difficult to monitor and to control against illegal activity, again, knowing or inadvertent. I think that really changes the landscape a lot.”
As TPMMuckraker has reported, Tea Party groups have picked up the mantle of voter fraud allegations, which voting experts say are not as much of a problem as groups made it out to be.
Here’s a report from KTRK-TV’s Miya Shay regarding the voter intimidation allegations. She speaks with a poll watcher who admits he didn’t know who he was watching the polls for and that he was recruited by True the Vote.