HOUSTON — The red dot of a laser pointer circled downtown Houston on a map during a virtual training of poll watchers by the Harris County Republican Party. It highlighted densely populated, largely Black, Latino and Asian neighborhoods.
“This is where the fraud is occurring,” a county Republican official said falsely in a leaked video of the training, which was held in March. A precinct chair in the northeastern, largely white suburbs of Houston, he said he was trying to recruit people from his area “to have the confidence and courage” to act as poll watchers in the circled areas in upcoming elections.
A question at the bottom corner of the slide indicated just how many poll watchers the party wanted to mobilize: “Can we build a 10K Election Integrity Brigade?”
As Republican lawmakers in major battleground states seek to make voting harder and more confusing through a web of new election laws, they are simultaneously making a concerted legislative push to grant more autonomy and access to partisan poll watchers — citizens trained by a campaign or a party and authorized by local election officials to observe the electoral process.
This effort has alarmed election officials and voting rights activists alike: There is a long history of poll watchers being used to intimidate voters and harass election workers, often in ways that target Democratic-leaning communities of color and stoke fears that have the overall effect of voter suppression. During the 2020 election, President Donald J. Trump’s campaign repeatedly promoted its “army” of poll watchers as he publicly implored supporters to venture into heavily Black and Latino cities and hunt for voter fraud.
Republicans have offered little evidence to justify a need for poll watchers to have expanded access and autonomy. As they have done for other election changes — including reduced early voting, stricter absentee ballot requirements and limits on drop boxes — they have grounded their reasoning in arguments that their voters want more secure elections. That desire was born in large part out of Mr. Trump’s repeated lies about last year’s presidential contest, which included complaints about insufficient poll watcher access.
Now, with disputes over the rules governing voting now at a fever pitch, the rush to empower poll watchers threatens to inject further tension into elections.
Both partisan and nonpartisan poll watching have been a key component of American elections for years, and Republicans and Democrats alike have routinely sent trained observers to the polls to monitor the process and report back on any worries. In recent decades, laws have often helped keep aggressive behavior at bay, preventing poll watchers from getting too close to voters or election officials, and maintaining a relatively low threshold for expelling anyone who misbehaves.
But now Republican state lawmakers in 20 states have introduced at least 40 bills that would expand the powers of poll watchers, and 12 of those bills in six states are currently progressing through legislatures, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
In Texas, the Republican-controlled Legislature is advancing legislation that would allow them to photograph and video-record voters receiving assistance, as well as make it extremely difficult for election officials to order the removal of poll watchers.
The video-recording measure has particularly alarmed voting rights groups, which argue that it could result in the unwanted identification of a voter in a video posted on social media, or allow isolated incidents to be used by partisan news outlets to craft a widespread narrative.
“If you have a situation, for example, where people who are poll workers do not have the ability to throw out anybody at the polls…