Who Watches the Pollwatchers?
Ebony magazine intimidates white people.
That’s one of the many lessons you can learn from reading through years of complaints from voters and election workers who claim they’ve experienced fraud or intimidation.
In a public records request, Fort Worth Weekly asked the Tarrant County Elections Office for all such complaints during the last four years. The results revealed no widespread electioneering, though a few people believed that’s what happened.
Most incidents involved cranky voters, surly election workers, personality conflicts, and misunderstandings. Overall, they show the racial and political tensions that already exist at polling places –– and how easy it would be for one misbehaving pollwatcher to stoke those fears into a bonfire.
Enter Ebony, the African-American culture magazine.
When Richard Railey entered a polling place in November last year, he spied a copy of the magazine on the election table “facing outward, prominently displayed towards the voters,” he wrote in an e-mail.
“It is EXTREMELY inappropriate and probably a federal election law violation to have this magazine displayed by a polling official and I believe it was an attempt to intimidate, bully, and threaten white voters,” Railey continued.
He sent his complaint to the Texas Secretary of State’s Office, as well as Tarrant County.
There were actually more complaints from white people feeling intimidated by minority voters than the other way around.
In 2007 a disabled military veteran said he was forced to fill out a residency form while black voters were “allowed to come up to the table and see my identification.
“The black people working at the booth did not care about a white person and just kept passing me while my information was laid out in front of them,” Richard Free wrote.
At another polling place, election workers asked Tony Sparks to fill out a registration form, but he said his vote wasn’t counted because of their incompetence.
“I am sure that there are illegal aliens getting a vote all over this country but your staff made sure that a soldier, currently serving, does not get a vote in one of the most important elections we have had in this country, ever,” Sparks wrote in a complaint.
The suspicion of racism flows both ways. Paula Sheffield said she showed up for early voting in 2010 only to be told her name wasn’t in the registry. Sheffield wrote that an election worker turned around and said she “probably wasn’t registered and you can’t register through Medicaid.”
Sheffield believed she was registered.
“Accusations of this kind could cause a person of color to just leave the voting poll and not vote,” Sheffield wrote.
Many complaints are the result of bad juju between election workers: a tap on the back of the head that turns ugly, a cantankerous election judge who loses her temper and wants to close down the polling place an hour early. Other times, it’s just a voter who won’t shut up about brainless Democrats or close-minded Republicans.
Steve Raborn, the county elections administrator, said his office tries to respond to every complaint, and the e-mails bear that out. Most of the examples above drew polite assurances that Raborn’s office would investigate the claims of misbehavior.
Sometimes it results in an election worker being banned from future elections, but usually the truth is hard to suss out from all the he said/she said between pollworkers and voters. The fault is often on both sides, but rarely is there evidence of deliberate wrongdoing. One thing’s certain: If it were possible to conduct elections without any people, they would work a lot smoother, Raborn said.
“Some people are going to be ugly — it’s just the nature of having that many people in the process. And when you’re talking about elections, emotions are running high anyway. It’s just a volatile situation,” he said. “Sometimes they try to make it a partisan conspiracy or a racial conspiracy. People dream up some interesting stuff.”
The only case of voter impersonation Raborn can recall in the six years he’s run the elections office (other than Hazel James) happened when Michael Barbolla, an election worker, was caught voting for his disabled wife in 2008.
“We intend never to appoint him again,” Raborn said.
Two years ago, the Tarrant County GOP began to step up its pollwatching game, recruiting among Tea Partiers to keep an eye on those “unsafe” Democratic precincts that Klick talked about.
There were some news stories about potentially rambunctious pollwatchers inspired by True the Vote, so Raborn’s office prepared for the worst. In October 2010, Democratic precinct chair Belinda Morphew wrote to Raborn about her concerns that the True the Vote uproar was coming to Fort Worth.
She talked about election judges who already tolerate disruptive voters. What if they tolerate belligerent pollwatchers too?
“This is very alarming and needs to be addressed, as the intimidators are the actual pollwatchers. Imagine that!” Morphew wrote. “I hope this doesn’t happen here, and I really hate that it happens anywhere.”
Ultimately, the office received few complaints about pollwatchers during the 2010 election. Harris County, after all, has a much closer partisan split than solidly conservative Tarrant County, Raborn said.
“You’re probably going to see more of that kind of thing in your swing states,” he said.
Then again, state Republicans are gunning for State Sen. Wendy Davis, who rode the Obama wave in 2008 to a surprise victory. Among civil rights groups and Democrats, it seemed clear that True the Vote’s real goal in Houston was to prevent the growing minority vote from turning the state’s most populous county blue.
Combating voter fraud, they said, was a smokescreen for protecting the Republican status quo.