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As fears of election-related unrest rise, here's what you need to know about poll watchers in Texas

Political parties are enlisting a record number of poll watchers in Texas and across the country for a highly charged election season.
Credit: Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune
Poll watchers play an important part in the electoral process, but Texas has strict rules dictating who can serve as one and what role they can play.

This story originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

Leslie Boykin received a message from the Travis County Democratic Party seeking lawyers to work as poll watchers. The Austin criminal defense attorney served as a precinct chair for nearly seven years, but had never considered volunteering as an election monitor.

She said she signed up, in part, out of a feeling of democratic duty, even as the coronavirus continues to circulate in Texas, and despite the fact that her mother is at an elevated risk for contracting the virus. “It’s just that important,” she said.

“President [Donald] Trump’s rhetoric may cause some Republicans to try and cast doubt upon election results, or even sabotage election results or in some way say they aren’t fair,” Boykin said. “I think it’s important to try to double check everything, to dot your i’s and cross your t’s and ensure it’s all done correctly, documented and witnessed.”

Boykin is part of an unprecedented effort to recruit thousands of poll watchers in Texas and across the country, as elections experts and voting rights groups warn of a growing threat of unrest and voter intimidation.

During the first presidential debate, Trump urged his supporters to head to the polls and “watch very carefully,” sparking fears that people would take poll watching — a well-defined role under Texas law — into their own hands. His son, Donald Trump Jr., posted a separate video that urged people to join the “army for Trump’s election security operation.”

Poll watchers are important for a smooth electoral process, experts say. But it’s dangerous to encourage self-appointed observers to act outside legal boundaries.

“It’s very infrequently about ensuring election integrity and much more often the case of potentially intimidating voters,” said Patrick Flavin, a political science professor at Baylor University.

Texas has stringent rules dictating who can observe an election and what role can they play. Here’s what you need to know about poll watchers:

Who can serve as a poll watcher?

Under Texas law, a poll watcher must be appointed by either a candidate for office, a political party, or a proponent or opponent of a ballot measure.

A poll watcher also must be registered to vote in the territory covered by the election, such as a city or school district and they must wear badges that identify themselves as poll watchers. Candidates for office and elected officials are not eligible.

Each precinct is limited to two poll watchers per appointing authority on duty at any given time.

What can a poll watcher do?

Poll watchers are permitted to observe almost every aspect of the election. They can look for instances of electioneering — or campaigning in close proximity to a polling place — tampering with voting equipment or bribing voters.

Poll watchers can also monitor the installation and testing of voting machines, returns prepared by election officials, the delivery of records from a precinct to a central counting station and the tallying of votes.

If they notice a violation, they must report it to the precinct’s election clerk or judge. But a poll watcher is not permitted to discuss the matter any further, unless invited to do so by the site’s election judge.

What are poll watchers prohibited from doing?

Poll watchers are prohibited from almost anything other than observing. Specifically, they are barred from:

  • Talking to election officials, other than to report a violation.
  • Talking to voters.
  • Leaving the precinct without an election judge’s permission, unless the poll watcher has worked for five consecutive hours.

Texas Democrats say they’re building the largest voter protection program in the state’s history. A party spokesperson said the organization recruited thousands of lawyers and volunteers to monitor precincts across the state as official poll watchers. In Travis County alone, about 900 people registered as poll watchers, said Katie Naranjo, chair of the Travis County Democratic Party.

The Texas GOP did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee have pledged to recruit more than 50,000 poll watchers across the U.S for the Nov. 3 elections.

For nearly four decades, the RNC was bound by a federal consent decree that barred the party from undertaking election protection efforts without court approval — the result of an effort in 1981 to intimidate New Jersey voters. A judge lifted the decree in 2018.

Responding to what they call “unprecedented intimidation tactics” and efforts by officials to “make voting more difficult for their own political gain,” a network of liberal Texas officials and community leaders on Thursday announced the launch of Texas Right to Vote. Among those on its advisory board are former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke of El Paso and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo.

The organization pointed to Gov. Greg Abbott’s move to limit mail-in ballot drop boxes as an example of efforts to suppress voting. Mimi Marziani, a member of Texas Right to Vote and president of the Texas Civil Rights Project, said the coalition’s primary goal is to combat misinformation on social media.

RELATED: Texas attorney general appeals judge's injunction blocking the restriction of ballot drop-off locations

Marziani’s organization is also leading a nonpartisan voter protection program. More than 3,000 volunteers will staff a hotline, where voters can report intimidation, and monitor polling locations.

“This is a pretty unprecedented moment for our democracy,” she said.

Disclosure: Baylor University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.