(CNN)Voting rights activists are sounding alarms about Republican efforts in key states to empower partisan poll watchers and expand voter challenges — arguing it could lead to voter intimidation that recalls dark chapters in US history.
Bills in several states would grant new authority to poll watchers — who work on behalf of candidates and political parties — to observe voters and election workers. Critics say it could lead to conflict and chaos at polling places and an improper targeting of voters of color.
In Texas, a measure under consideration by the Republican-controlled legislature would grant partisan poll watchers the right to videotape voters as they receive assistance casting their ballots.
And in Florida, a sweeping election bill passed Thursday by Republicans in the state legislature specifies that partisan observers must be close enough to “directly observe ballots” as canvassing boards work to authenticate voters’ signatures on absentee ballots. There are no limits on how many ballots poll watchers can challenge. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has indicated he will sign the law.
Meanwhile, in Georgia, the state’s controversial new voting law makes it explicit that any Georgian can challenge the qualifications of an unlimited number of their fellow voters. The new law comes after a Texas group, True the Vote, teamed up with Georgia activists last year to question the qualifications of more than 360,000 voters ahead of two Senate runoff elections.
Most counties dismissed True the Vote’s challenges, but Georgia’s new statute requires local election administrators to consider these challenges, threatening them with state sanctions if they don’t.
“If you believe that these challenges aren’t going to be racially targeted, then you are crazy,” said Marc Elias, a leading Democratic election lawyer who has sued on behalf of voting rights groups to stop the Georgia law from taking effect. “This is going to become a tool of voter suppression by Republicans in the state of Georgia.”
The moves to empower partisan actors come after record numbers of voters turned out in 2020. States relaxed election rules to allow more voting by mail and the use of drop boxes to avoid spreading Covid-19. That turnout surge in states such as Georgia helped Democrats seize the White House and the majority in the US Senate.
As part of their failed efforts to overturn the election results, former President Donald Trump and his allies repeatedly argued fraud could have occurred because Trump-aligned poll watchers lacked sufficient access to the voting and counting process in several states. There is no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 election.
Around the country, Republican legislators have responded with measures that grant more authority to poll watchers. A new analysis by the liberal-leaning Brennan Center for Justice found that, as of April 15, lawmakers in 20 states had introduced at least 40 bills to expand poll watchers’ powers.
New powers proposed in Texas
Poll watchers are partisan volunteers who, as their name implies, “watch” or observe what’s happening at polling places. Their primary function is to help ensure their party or candidate has a fair shot of winning the election. Both political parties deploy them.
Federal law prohibits harassment of voters, and most state laws prevent poll watchers from interfering with the voting process.
In Texas, bills moving through the state legislature would give them new authority.
One Texas provision gives a poll watcher the right to record images and sounds at a polling place — including at the voting station if the poll voter is receiving help “the watcher reasonably believes to be unlawful.”
A separate measure bars election judges — the poll workers who preside over each precinct — from removing poll watchers unless the watcher “knowingly or intentionally” tries to “influence the independent exercise of the voter of another in the presence of the ballot or during the voting process.”
It also threatens election workers with misdemeanors for knowingly preventing poll watchers from observing the process.
“It’s a surveillance role,” Sarah Labowitz, policy director of the ACLU of Texas, said of the way the proposed laws treat poll watchers. “It really empowers the poll watchers over the voter and the election judges.”
In a recent interview on CNN, the bill’s sponsor, GOP state Sen. Bryan Hughes, said the videotaping provision will “make sure voters are casting their ballots — not being influenced by someone else.”
He described the taping as akin to a police body camera that will help resolve disputes between poll watchers and election officials. The law provides for the tape to be sent to the Secretary of State.
Floor action on sweeping election bills in the Texas House could happen as early as next week.
Poll watching and citizen challenges have been fraught issues. State laws in the 19th century made it difficult for African Americans to vote and to prove their qualifications — even after the 15th Amendment granted Black men the right to cast ballots.
In Florida, for example, a challenged voter needed to produce two witnesses to vouch for him. But the law said election officials needed to know each of the witnesses — which a Brennan Center study on the history of voter challenges described as an enormous hurdle for Black voters. Polling places in segregated Florida were staffed by White residents who were unlikely to know African American witnesses.
Last year’s election was the first presidential contest since 1980 in which the Republican National Committee could conduct its own poll watching operations.
A federal consent decree had barred the RNC from the practice for more than three decades after the national party targeted Black and Latino voters in New Jersey. The operation, carried out during a 1981 gubernatorial election, involved posting armed, off-duty law enforcements officers at polling places in heavily minority communities.
It also included erecting posters warning the area was being patrolled the “national ballot security task force” and offering a $1,000 reward for reports of violations of state election laws.
The consent decree ended in 2018.
Carol Anderson, an historian and professor of African American Studies at Emory University, said the new proposals build on a history of voter intimidation that long has targeted people of color.
“What’s built into this is the inequality of the system itself,” she said. “You know that somebody who is Black or Hispanic will not be able to go up into an all-White precinct and start challenging those voters without having a massive law-enforcement response.”
She called the wave of new laws “infuriating.”
“It’s infuriating because we’ve done this dance before,” Anderson said. “We know what a Jim Crow democracy looks like and the damage it does to the United States of America and to its people.”
One provision of Georgia’s controversial new election law requires that watchers can observe procedures at ballot tabulation centers. But the measure that could have a far greater impact sets out new requirements for handling challenges to voters’ qualifications.
In the run-up to the US Senate runoffs, True the Vote teamed up with Georgia residents to challenge the qualifications of more than 364,000 voters whose names it says appeared on databases from the US Postal Service and commercial sources as having changed their addresses.
Voting rights advocates counter that the change-of-address information is not a reliable way to determine eligibility and could unfairly target students, military personnel and others who temporarily change where the receive mail but remain eligible to vote in Georgia.
Most Georgia counties opted against taking up the challenges.
But under the new law, local election boards must set a hearing on a challenge within 10 business days of notifying the voter of the challenge. “Failure to comply with the provisions of this Code section by the board of registrars shall subject such board to sanctions by the State Election Board,” the law adds.
Elias said it will be impossible for election officials to comply with requirements to hold a hearing on each voter challenge when outside groups mount tens of thousands of such challenges. “It’s going to require these counties to drop everything and adjudicate these hearings before the election,” he said. “How the hell is a county supposed to do that?”
That failure to do so, he said, could give state officials grounds to sanction local election officials and invoke other provisions of the new law that allow the state elections board to replace local superintendents.
Voter challenges could lead to long lines and chaos at the polls on Election Day, he added.
Rep. Barry Fleming, the Republican architect of Georgia’s new law, did not respond to several interview requests from CNN.
Catherine Engelbrecht, the founder of True the Vote, cast her effort as a push to clean up Georgia voter rolls as election officials prepared to send out absentee ballots in the runoffs. Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock prevailed in those races, giving their party control of the US Senate.
In that election, Georgia relied on signature matching in absentee voting. The new law now requires voter identification to cast absentee ballots.
Engelbrecht, who rose in conservative politics as a Tea Party activist in Texas, has aggressively pursued claims of voter fraud, including in the 2020 election.
In an interview with CNN, Engelbrecht said the challenges she supported in Georgia involved so many voters because she took a broad brush — examining the voting rolls in every one of state’s 159 counties — to avoid targeting any particular group of voters.
“We, as a country, should agree that accuracy in voting matters,” Engelbrecht said. “There has to be some standard of we’re going to make sure when people move away that we don’t send a live ballot that doesn’t require any standard or identification or no way of tracking it once it’s opened and voted. That just begs for controversy.”
CNN’s Kelly Mena contributed to this report.