Bills in several states would give new power to election observers – who work on behalf of candidates and political parties – to observe voters and election workers. Critics say this could lead to conflict and chaos at polling stations and inappropriate targeting of voters of color.
In Texas, a measure being considered by the Republican-controlled legislature would grant partisan observers the right to film voters as they receive assistance to vote.
Meanwhile, in Georgia, the controversial new state voting law explicitly states that any Georgian can challenge the qualifications of an unlimited number of his fellow voters. The new law comes after a Texas group, True the Vote, teamed up with Georgian activists last year to question the qualifications of more than 360,000 voters ahead of two Senate elections.
Most counties have rejected True the Vote challenges, but Georgia’s new statute requires local election administrators to consider these challenges, threatening them with state sanctions if they don’t.
“If you think these challenges will not be racially targeted, then you are crazy,” said Marc Elias, a leading Democratic electoral lawyer who has filed a lawsuit on behalf of voting rights groups for prevent Georgian law from entering into force. “It is going to become a voter suppression tool by Republicans in the state of Georgia.”
The measures to empower partisan actors come after a record number of voters in 2020. States have relaxed election rules to allow more voting by mail and the use of drop boxes to prevent the spread of Covid-19. This surge in participation in states like Georgia has helped Democrats take over the White House and the majority in the US Senate.
As part of their unsuccessful efforts to overturn the election results, former President Donald Trump and his allies have repeatedly claimed that fraud could have occurred because Trump-aligned poll observers lacked a sufficient access to the voting and counting process in several states. There is no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 election.
Across the country, Republican lawmakers have responded with measures that grant more authority to poll watchers. A new analysis from the liberal-leaning Brennan Center for Justice found that, as of April 15, lawmakers in 20 states had introduced at least 40 bills to expand the powers of poll observers.
New powers proposed in Texas
Observers are partisan volunteers who, as their name suggests, “watch” or observe what happens in polling stations. Their main function is to make sure that their party or candidate has a chance of winning the elections. Both political parties deploy them.
Federal law prohibits harassment of voters, and most state laws prevent poll observers from interfering with the voting process.
In Texas, bills passing through the state legislature would give them new authority.
A Texas provision gives an observer the right to record images and sounds at a polling station – including at the polling station if the polling voter receives assistance “the observer reasonably believes to be illegal” .
A separate measure prohibits election judges – the poll workers who preside over each constituency – from removing election observers unless the observer “knowingly or intentionally” attempts to influence the independent exercise of the voter by a vote. other in the presence of the ballot or during the voting process. “
He also threatens election workers with crimes for knowingly preventing election observers from observing the process.
“It’s a monitoring role,” said Sarah Labowitz, policy director for the ACLU of Texas, of how the proposed laws treat election observers. “It really gives election observers power over the voter and the election judges.”
He described the recording as akin to a police corps camera that will help resolve disputes between poll observers and election officials. The law provides for the tape to be sent to the Secretary of State.
Ground action on high-profile election bills at Texas House could take place as early as next week.
In Florida, the obligation to observe when matching signatures has raised concerns among election supervisors. In an interview on CNN’s “New Day” on Saturday, Mark Earley, the Leon County election supervisor, said the law will allow observers to view ballots via video streams – after election officials expressed concern that poll observers were crowding into secure areas.
“But many countries don’t have the technology or the money to make this happen or even the space for it to happen, so there are still concerns about it,” he said.
A turbulent history
Observation of polls and citizen challenges have been thorny issues. State laws in the 19th century made it difficult for African Americans to vote and prove their qualifications – even after the 15th Amendment granted black men the right to vote.
In Florida, for example, a contested voter had to produce two witnesses to vouch for him. But the law said election officials must know every witness – what a Brennan Center study on the history of electoral challenges described as a huge hurdle for black voters. Polling stations in segregated Florida were occupied by white residents who were unlikely to know of African-American witnesses.
Last year’s election was the first presidential contest since 1980 in which the Republican National Committee could conduct its own poll observation operations.
A federal consent decree had banned the RNC from practicing the practice for more than three decades after the national party targeted black and Latino voters in New Jersey. The operation, carried out during an election for governor in 1981, involved the secondment of armed and off-duty law enforcement officers to polling stations in large minority communities.
It also included the installation of posters warning that the area was being monitored by the “National Ballot Security Task Force” and offering a reward of $ 1,000 for reports of violations of state election laws. .
The consent decree ended in 2018.
Carol Anderson, historian and professor of African American studies at Emory University, said the new proposals are based on a history of voter intimidation that has long targeted people of color.
“What’s built into all of this is the inequality of the system itself,” she said. “You know that someone who is black or Hispanic will not be able to come up to an all-white neighborhood and start challenging these voters without having a massive response from law enforcement.”
She called the wave of new laws “infuriating.”
“It’s maddening because we’ve done this dance before,” Anderson said. “We know what a Jim Crow democracy looks like and the damage it does to the United States of America and its people.”
A provision in Georgia’s controversial new electoral law requires observers to observe procedures at ballot counting centers. But the measure that could have a much bigger impact sets new requirements to manage the challenges of voter qualifications.
As the second round of the US Senate nears, True the Vote teamed up with residents of Georgia to challenge the credentials of more than 364,000 voters whose names appeared in US Postal Service databases and commercial sources as having changed address.
Voting rights advocates counter that information about the change of address is not a reliable way to determine eligibility and could unfairly target students, military personnel and others who temporarily change their reception location. mail but remain eligible to vote in Georgia.
Most counties in Georgia have chosen not to take up the challenges.
But under the new law, local election commissions must hold a hearing on a challenge within 10 working days of notifying the voter of the challenge. “Failure to comply with the provisions of this section of the Code by the board of registrars will subject this board to sanctions by the National Council of Elections”, adds the law.
Elias said it will be impossible for election officials to comply with requirements to hold a hearing on every voter challenge when outside groups mount tens of thousands of such challenges. “This will force these counties to give up everything and decide on these hearings before the elections,” he said. “How the hell is a county supposed to do that?”
This non-compliance, he said, could give state officials grounds to sanction local election officials and invoke other provisions of the new law that allow the state elections council to replace local superintendents.
Election challenges could lead to long lines and chaos at the polls on election day, he added.
Representative Barry Fleming, the Republican architect of the new Georgian law, did not respond to several CNN interview requests.
Catherine Engelbrecht, the founder of True the Vote, went out of her way to try to clean up Georgia’s electoral rolls as election officials prepared to send out postal ballots in the second round. Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock prevailed in these races, giving their party control of the US Senate.
During this election, Georgia relied on the correspondence of signatures for the vote of absent ones. The new law now requires the identification of voters to vote by mail.
Engelbrecht, who rose in conservative politics as a Tea Party activist in Texas, aggressively pursued allegations of voter fraud, including in the 2020 election.
In an interview with CNN, Engelbrecht said the challenges she faced in Georgia involved so many voters, as she took a wide range – looking at the voting lists in each of the state’s 159 counties – to avoid to target a particular group of voters.
“As a country, we should agree that the accuracy of the votes is important,” Engelbrecht said. “There has to be a standard to make sure that when people move out, we don’t send out a live ballot that doesn’t require any standard or ID or any way to track it once it’s been. opened and voted. just asks the controversy. “
This story has been updated with additional information.
CNN’s Kelly Mena contributed to this report.