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House Elections tackles more proposals to ease fears of voter fraud

Image has not been found. URL: http://images.americanindependent.com/2010/07/MahurinReligion_Thumb.jpgWhile photo identification legislation has gotten top billing in the GOP-led battle against Election Day voter fraud fears, other proposals are being entertained that would empower volunteer poll watchers and put constraints on mass voter registration drives.

Helping lead the charge on those topics is Houston tea party group King Street Patriots, who jumped in the public spotlight last year with allegations of irregularities in voter registration applications submitted by the Houston Votes organization, who intend to recruit 1 million poll watchers across the U.S. for the 2012 presidential elections, and whose poll watchers sparked controversy and allegations of voter intimidation during the 2010 elections.

On Monday, the House Elections Committee heard testimony on House Bill 1926 by state Rep. Bill Zedler (R-Arlington). The bill would allow poll watchers — who represent parties, groups or candidates — to videotape in polling places if they believe something illegal is occurring (and without compromising individual ballot secrecy). The bill also makes it a Class B Misdemeanor for someone to reveal poll watchers’ identities without their permission, punishable by a max $2,000 fine and/or six months in jail or less.

Representatives of counties and county officials said the proposed rights to record video and remain anonymous would be the creation of unique privileges for poll watchers, and cautioned against unintended consequences, such as voter intimidation and inability for poll workers to maintain order in polling places.

“Poll watchers are special ops. They have been sent into polling places by an activist campaign to watch over or seek out any aberrations from what they perceive as the smooth operation of the polling place and then to act immediately to try to intervene on that,” Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said. “To give that person any extra recording devices would have a chilling and sort of extraterritorial power that I don’t think is appropriate inside a polling place, and county clerks are extremely concerned about them not being on a reasonable footing with everybody else.”

DeBeauvoir also expressed skepticism that poll watchers would have a special need to remain anonymous, when other people at polling places — election judges, poll workers, etc. — do not have that kind of protection.

The King Street Patriots’ Robert Antill disagreed with DeBeauvoir’s characterization of poll watchers, saying, “Poll watchers are not special ops. They are not appointed by activists to be there. They represent a party, candidate or ballot initiative.”

State Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Fort Worth) pointed out that, by definition, that makes poll watchers biased toward one option on the ballot over another.

Ed Johnson with the Harris County Clerk’s Office testified in favor of the bill, saying that everybody working at polling places — not just poll watchers — has partisan affiliations.

Antill claimed poll watchers need to be able to record video in polling places to prevent later disagreements over whether irregularities took place or not. He said poll watchers can receive training beforehand to instruct them on when and what is appropriate to record.

“There’s no statutory requirement for training to be a poll watcher,” said Tarrant County Elections Administrator Steve Raborn, representing the Texas Association of Elections Administrators. “We as a county don’t usually know who they are until they arrive at the polling place with paperwork. They may have undergone some sort of training by a party, but they certainly have not been trained by the county.”

State Rep. Dan Branch (R-Dallas) said Veasey had expressed valid concerns about the effect of anonymous poll watchers videotaping inside polling places.

“I would feel uncomfortable if some young watcher or an old watcher starts filming me while I’m standing there voting,” he said.

However, Branch did say that the law needs to be changed to allow poll watchers to bring their handheld devices (such as cell phones with cameras) inside the polling places, so long as they don’t use them inside the polling places.

Johnson said, if lawmakers aren’t going to empower poll watchers with videotaping ability, he liked the recommendation of allowing counties to set up their own recording devices to document polling place irregularities.

However, Michael Vasquez of the Texas Conference of Urban Counties said that would be a “very large unfunded mandate on counties. We would certainly be opposed to that idea.”

Though he had registered as “neutral” on the bill, Vasquez said he has “serious concerns” about its provisions creating “a huge mess” on Election Day. He also said that “serious concerns about voter intimidation have to be addressed or you could be opening election officials up to lawsuits.”

Registered against the bill were the Texas NAACP, Texas Democratic Party, League of Women Voters of Texas, Texas AFL-CIO, ACLU of Texas and Coalition of Texans with Disabilities. Those in favor of the bill included the chair of the Travis County GOP, Texas Conservative Coalition and GOP county chairs.

Bill author Zedler said people have “no expectation of privacy” inside a polling place, as long as their ballot choices aren’t revealed.

“In my opinion if I’m not doing anything wrong, I don’t care if someone is taking videos,” he said.

The committee put the bill on hold for future consideration and did not take a vote.

It did, however, pass out another bill by Zedler, HB 1925, that creates new requirements and training standards for deputy voter registrars. The bill also makes it a state jail felony for a noncitizen to register to vote or compel someone else to register to vote, carrying a penalty of six months to two years in jail and a maximum $10,000 fine.

The committee also passed HB 239 by state Rep. Tan Parker (R-Flower Mound), making it a Class A Misdemeanor to pay or accept compensation based on the number of voter registration a person successfully facilitates. Additionally, the “officer, director or other agent” of the registering entity would also be held equally liable if an offense occurred.

A Class A Misdemeanor is punishable by a max fine of $4,000 and/or a jail term of one year or less.

The Dallas Morning News reported:

“Efforts to register voters – which often focus on poor, elderly, disabled and minority voters who typically back Democrats – could be made much more difficult by legislation picking up steam in the GOP-controlled Legislature.

The bills would effectively shut down national voter registration drives, create felonies around some registration activities and prohibit people from being paid to register voters.

Republican leaders say the measures would help boost confidence in voting integrity, close “loopholes” that may allow fraud and ease the burden on county elections offices.”

(Image by Matt Mahurin)

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