Texas Attorney General Threatens Foreign Poll Watchers

October 25, 2012 11:51 a.m.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott made it clear this week he does not want international elections observers anywhere near the polls in his state.In a letter dated Tuesday to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Abbott threatened to prosecute any of its monitors who step within 100 feet of a Texas polling place on Election Day. The threat came even though U.S. State Department officials earlier this year had invited the monitors to observe the election.

“If OSCE members want to learn more about our elections processes so they can improve their own democratic systems, we welcome the opportunity to discuss the measures Texas has implemented to protect the integrity of the elections,” Abbott wrote. “However, groups and individuals from outside the United States are not allowed to influence or interfere with the election process in Texas.”

The letter provoked a swift response on Wednesday from Janez Lenarcic, the head of the international group’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, who wrote a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressing his concern that the threat of prosecution was contrary to the U.S.’s obligations as an OSCE participant.

“The threat of criminal sanctions against OSCE/ODIHR observers is unacceptable,” Lenarcic said in a news release about the letter. “The United States, like all countries in the OSCE, has an obligation to invite ODIHR observers to observe its elections.”

Lenarcic added the observers were “required to remain strictly impartial” and they were in the United States “to observe these elections, not to interfere in them.” State Department officials have invited the monitors to observe the process in five elections since 2002.

The OSCE, which has a partnership agreement with the United Nations, had been pressed by a coalition of voting rights organizations to focus its monitoring efforts on states they believed were most likely to be impacted by voter restriction efforts.

Abbott’s letter stated OSCE representatives “are not authorized by Texas law to enter a polling place” and their opinions of voter ID laws were “legally irrelevant in the United States.”

While Abbott claimed the Supreme Court “has already determined that Voter ID laws are constitutional,” Texas’ voter ID law was blocked by a panel of federal judges in August and will not be in effect on Election Day. The judges found that the law would “almost certainly have retrogressive effect: it imposes strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor, and racial minorities in Texas are disproportionately likely to live in poverty.”

Abbott also attacked Project Vote, one of the organizations asking for the focus, writing that it was “closely affiliated with ACORN, which collapsed in disgrace after its role in a widespread voter-registration fraud scheme was uncovered.” Project Vote’s Michael Slater said in a statement on Wednesday that it appeared Abbott “is ashamed of Texas’s voting rights record or he would welcome observers with open arms.”

Other conservatives like Rep. Connie Mack (R-FL), who is running for the U.S. Senate, have also attacked the international elections monitors.

“The very idea that the United Nations — the world body dedicated to diminishing America’s role in the world — would be allowed, if not encouraged, to install foreigners sympathetic to the likes of Castro, Chavez, Ahmadinejad and Putin to oversee our elections is nothing short of disgusting,” Mack said in a statement on Monday.

Late update: Abbott sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday afternoon asking for assurance that OSCE poll watchers would obey Texas’ election laws in addition to federal statutes. He wrote that it seemed the OSCE was “under the misimpression that the State Department can somehow help its representatives circumvent the Texas Election Code.”

Correction: The OSCE is an independent organization that has a partnership agreement with the United Nations. A previous version of this report incorrectly said the organization was created by the U.N.

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