HOUSTON -- Conservative groups are alleging Harris County’s voting system is corrupt and they’re sending hundreds of “poll watchers” to monitor voting. That’s prompting liberal groups to complain the poll watchers are so numerous—and so white---that it amounts to intimidation in mostly black neighborhoods.
So the 11 News I-Team headed to polling places and found some voters getting extra scrutiny. The I-Team also found that controversies over such monitoring are nothing new in Houston.
For years, conservatives nationwide have complained that vote fraud is rampant. The latest, local example can be found in a video posted on the Web by True the Vote, an offshoot of a conservative Houston group called King Street Patriots. In the video, it’s alleged that observers sent to cover voting in the 2009 Houston mayoral race, “saw corruption everywhere.”
“Our elections are being manipulated by the RADICAL LEFT,” read one full-screen graphic.
The video was a call to action to get volunteers to become poll watchers. The group said it was critical in this year’s race in Harris County because "If we lose Houston, we lose Texas,” said one man in the video. (Watch the video at http://www.truethevote.org/)
The Harris County Republican Party has vowed to send as many as 1,000 poll watchers out on Election Day and says it already has hundreds observing early voting.
Where are they? Last Friday, the 11 News I-Team did spot checks around the county.
In Tomball, where the predominant race is white, voters were lined up 20 deep at an early voting location in the Tomball Public Works building. But there was not one poll watcher to be found.
“They make people nervous,” said Glenda Bell, the presiding judge on duty. She said the last time she saw a poll watcher was two years ago in the presidential election.
The 11 News I-Team then went to Jersey Village and saw a racially-diverse stream of voters at the voting location inside the Jersey Village City Hall. But like in Tomball, there were no poll watchers.
The presiding judge, Joe Hicks, said there had been two Republican poll watchers there earlier in the week but he said they left and never returned.
Next, the I-Team went to the mostly black, low-income neighborhoods of south central Houston. Inside the Sunnyside Multi-Purpose Center, there were no lines but a near constant arrival of one or two early voters, most all of them black.
Unlike the other two locations, here there were two poll watchers seated within several feet of the line of voting booths. Both poll watchers were Anglo and both were Republicans, according to Teresa Saldierna, the presiding judge. She said there were also two Democratic poll watchers there, but they were not visible during the I-Team’s visit.
Saldierna said, earlier in the week, there had been as many as 10 Republican poll watchers there.
Outside the building, an African-American candidate for a county judge position, Cheryl Elliott Thornton, expressed concern.
“It does give the impression of intimidation,” said Elliott Thornton.
"There does seem to be a difference,” she referring to voting locations and the presence of poll watchers.
Also outside the Sunnyside Multi-Purpose was Sondra Martin, a supporter of the King Street Patriot group. Martin, an independent filmmaker from Fort Bend County, she said she was there with her video camera to observe.
Asked about the controversy over poll watchers, she said of the conservative group: "I've never heard them say anything like that and would bet everything I had they're not racist."
“I don’t think any of these people are there to intimidate. They’re trying to be good people, trying to make sure the law is followed. It’s the poll watchers who’ve been intimidated by poll workers and citizens,” said Martin.
Historically speaking, the poll watcher controversy is nothing new.
"We've seen it before," said Matthew Festa, a professor at the South Texas College of Law.
In a 2004 study, done by Rice University Professor Chandler Davidson, there are details of a similar controversy over poll watchers in 1984. The study said black State Sen. Craig Washington "threatened to send 1,000 black .. .ex-felons to watch the white poll-watchers in black precincts."
Two years later, the study found that complaints of white watchers in black precincts continued, but the county Republican chairman denied it had anything to do with race. Instead, he said it was because the inner city is where most voters vote a straight Democratic ticket and "that's where the abuses are going to happen."
How widespread is such alleged voting abuse?
"It's probably not as common as people may think in their imaginations," said Festa.
Festa has worked on voting fraud cases and said there was no question votes are stolen and voters are intimidated by both parties.
But, he said, “the system works pretty well and there isn't much electoral fraud in America today."
That is not to say that law enforcement hasn't looked for it.
A few years ago, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott spent over $1 million to root out what he said was an epidemic of voter fraud. The AG’s investigations found that non-citizens and non-existent people had been registered to vote. It also found people who voted twice by using a dead person's registration.
But in all, the AG made just 26 prosecutions statewide, and news reports said they were all against Democrats. Attorney General Abbott is a Republican.
Click here to read the study by Rice University.
Click here to read the rules for poll watchers in Texas.