Two years ago, the week before Election Day, I drove to Harris County, Texas. More specifically, I drove to the Acres Homes Multi-Service Center, a polling location for early voting in one of Houston’s poor, predominantly black neighborhoods. After alleging that Harris County had a widespread problem with voter fraud, a Tea Party group called the King Street Patriots had launched a project called True the Vote, which had trained hundreds of volunteer poll watchers. As the early voting period began, reports had begun to trickle out about white poll watchers arriving at minority precincts and intimidating voters. In Texas, poll watchers, appointed by a political party to watch the proceedings, aren’t allowed to do much; they’re barred from communicating with voters. But these poll watchers, foreign to the neighborhoods they were working in, were apparently not all observing the rules.
As I walked into the building, I asked one of the custodians how to spot the poll watchers. “Just look for the white people!” he told me. He said that he’d heard about people who were afraid to bring elderly relatives to vote because “first thing [they’d] be thinking about is 1960.”
The stories I wrote for The Texas Observer explained why voters could easily feel threatened: “Around the lines of voting booths, ramps into the building created a mini-balcony, from which two poll watchers looked down at the voters. Both older white men, they maintained a serious expression for the entirety of the two hours I was there. Sometimes they wandered amidst the voting booths. Since everything was crammed together, it wasn’t hard to imagine how one of the watchers could feel intrusive to a voter. There was barely room for people standing in their rows.”