Thanks to the Tribune-Herald editorial board for last Sunday’s extensive Q&A with local election officials explaining all the ins and outs of voting in McLennan County. In recent years, much conversation and even more debate have ensued over how and where elections are conducted; the qualifications and training of election clerks and judges; what one can wear and not wear inside the polling place; and what you can say and not say in the parking lot.
And then there are the poll watchers. Once considered invisible and irrelevant, those now in their ranks go to the polls to observe and make note of potential irregularities. The data collected have helped us advocate for positive changes that create a more stress-free voting environment. Both political parties use this helpful process to record goings-on in vote centers. Staffing and machinery allocations have been changed because of careful monitoring of voter trends.
Granted, some poll watchers have garnered more attention than they should. Last May, for instance, a rather infamous poll watcher began hollering and falsely accusing the alternate election judge in Bellmead of changing votes at a computer set up nearby. She then threatened the judge with legal action. At some point, the presiding judge finally exercised the right given by state law to election judges: Police were summoned.
So what can the poll watcher do? The training manual at the Texas Secretary of State’s Office online is 23 pages of riveting government-speak on the election process, complete with citations that refer you to statute. It’s all written to help people quietly observe the voting place to ensure it’s run in a way that does not intimidate or threaten any voter because of anyone’s allegiance to one party or another. The vote center must always be a neutral place.
Just for fun, let’s take a look at what a poll watcher designated by a political party or a candidate can do in observing activity at the polls.
The polling place should be as quiet as a library on the eve before final exams. Silence creates a space where people can think and take their time on balloting choices — and longer times are more likely in general elections now that voters can no longer vote straight-ticket with the push of a button (hardly a problem in primary elections). People who disrupt, speak to voters, editorialize on candidates, curse or use racial slurs should be asked to leave.
In fact, “the early voting clerk and the presiding judge of each polling place, as appropriate, have the authority of a district judge while serving in that capacity. This authority enables the early voting clerk or the presiding judge, as appropriate, to use his or her discretion to ensure the safety and efficiency of the early voting and election day polling place and the surrounding 100-foot area.” So says Texas Election Code §§ 32.075(e), 81.002.
The poll watcher may speak to the election judge regarding the election only. The purpose of such communication is to call attention to an irregularity or violation of election law. Period. Poll watchers cannot communicate in any manner with a voter regarding the election. Rolling of eyes, hand signals, audible sighs, etc., are simply not allowed.
The most important part of the poll watcher’s job is to ensure everyone who has appropriate documentation is allowed to vote. Voters with alternative forms of ID should be offered a Reasonable Impediment Declaration form, a formal statement of certain hardships in obtaining legal materials to vote. No one should be turned away. Every registered voter should at least have an opportunity to vote by “provisional ballot.” The latter sort of voter can vote, then has six calendar days to go to the local elections office (214 N. Fourth St.) and bring appropriate documentation to validate his or her vote. People may change their addresses as they vote. People may prove their name is substantially similar to the name on voter rolls.
Most important takeaway: We are all neutral when we serve as election judges and clerks. At no time should party affiliation matter when voting is underway. Guarding the vote — lifeblood of a functioning republic — is a sacred trust. The folks making vote centers function are volunteers working for less than most fast-food workers earn. They do so out of a sense of duty to country. Many qualify as patriots. Clerks and student clerks make even less than the judges, but they’re there to serve as captains of this fragile ship of state. And poll watchers watch for free.
Some of our men and women who served in uniform in Iraq helped set up free elections there after the fall of Saddam Hussein. People walked for miles, survived roadside bombs and risked ambush, all to stand in line for hours to cast ballots. They proudly displayed fingers and thumbs dyed in purple to indicate each had voted — a clever way to guard against voter fraud. Given the hardships many of them faced, how feeble are the many excuses we hear from fellow citizens for not voting in Texas.
No matter what our differences in ideology and policy, poll watchers, election judges, clerks and student clerks are trained and stand ready to make sure elections go off without a hitch. We cannot control what goes on in other phases of the election process, but we can pitch in to make sure local elections proceed smoothly. If you would like to work during elections, contact your local party or the elections office at 757-5043. And welcome aboard.