Travis County clerk halts ‘media room’ sequestration of poll watchers

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AUSTIN (KXAN) – In a Texas Supreme Court filing made public Tuesday, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir has agreed to no longer lock poll watchers into a “media room” and away from the Central Counting Station.

But the move might only be temporary.

The county submitted the filing as an answer to a Writ of Mandamus from the Travis County Republican Party. The party filed a petition for the mandamus with the Texas Supreme Court on Nov. 7. In it, the party wanted the court to order DeBeauvoir to stop sequestering poll watchers inside a separate room where they could not see or hear ballot counting and tabulation.

On Sept. 2, 2020 the TX Secretary of State’s Office sent the attorney general a letter requesting a “criminal investigation” into Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir’s office’s handling of poll watchers during the July 2020 runoff election. (Credit: Travis County)

DeBeauvoir told KXAN in an Nov. 2 interview that poll watchers had no problem seeing and hearing what was going on in the ballot counting room from their remote location. DeBeauvoir made those statements despite poll watchers filing formal complaints with the Texas Secretary of State’s Office over the media room sequestration in July.

Those July complaints led the SOS to request the Texas Attorney General’s Office open a criminal investigation into whether DeBeauvoir’s office obstructed poll watchers from performing their duties of observing each step of the voting process in Texas.

Poll watchers are required to be able to sit or stand “conveniently close” to the election activity they’ve been assigned to observe.

Watchers who’ve filed complaints with the state said they were unable to see computer screens, ballot stick serial numbers and couldn’t see ballot boxes being unsealed inside DeBeauvoir’s ballot counting room.

Obstructing a poll watcher is a crime under Texas law, punishable by up to one year in jail and fines up to $4,000.

“For the limited time that counting will take place for this election,” Travis County Attorney David Escamilla wrote in the Nov. 9 filing, the clerk “…will leave wide open the doors that go through an adjoining secured space between the main observation area and the Central Count… and will provide an area for poll watchers to remain inside the tabulation area of the Central Counting Station, as requested, on a rotating basis.”

Escamilla’s filing disputed allegations that poll watchers were obstructed.

The filing also shows the counting room design “has been in use for several years,” according to Escamilla. However, in a Nov. 2 interview, DeBeauvoir indicated she decided to use the media room design to separate poll watchers from her staff because of the pandemic.

“They can’t go and stand on top of the people doing processing, because it’s COVID and we don’t let them breathe on top of people, but you can see everything from inside the room,” DeBeauvoir told KXAN.

The Supreme Court dismissed the mandamus request on Nov. 8, which means the Republican Party now has the option to sue DeBeauvoir in district court in an attempt to ban her from sequestering poll watchers in future elections.

A final ballot count was set for around 5 p.m. Nov. 10.

There’s still a catch in the new set up. Although poll watchers are now allowed inside the counting room, the clerk’s office has corralled those watchers behind a plexiglass partition, according to Eric Opiela the attorney who filed the mandamus petition with the Supreme Court.

The partition doesn’t allow poll watchers the freedom to move about the counting station to observe ballots being opened, tabulation records or to verify counts called out by county workers, according to Opiela.

The Secretary of State has already weighed in on corralling poll watchers. In a March 3, 2020 email from the head of the SOS’s legal division to Gillespie County Elections Administrator Anissa Herrera, the office warned Herrera of corralling poll watchers into a confined space inside that county’s counting station.

This March 3, 2020 email from the Secretary of State reminded the Gillespie County Elections Administrator of a criminal penalty for obstructing poll watchers after watchers complained to the SOS about being roped off into a “holding pen” during the March 2020 primary election.

“I was told that you all had sectioned off part of the CCS for poll watchers, and that the presiding judge is prohibiting the poll watchers from getting close enough to the equipment to observe the counting/tabulating activity,” Christina Adkins wrote Herrera. “Poll watchers do have a right to watch these activities and prohibiting them from doing so is a criminal act under the 33.061 of the Texas Election Code.”

“I do think it’s an admission that the poll watchers were being sequestered and were being obstructed,” Republican poll watcher and licensed Texas attorney Jennifer Fleck told KXAN in a Nov. 10 interview in response to the media room change.

Austin attorney Jennifer Fleck was arrested and charged with criminal trespassing on Nov. 2 after showing up to her poll watcher assignment. Fleck called 911 after she claimed she witnessed the Travis County Clerk’s Office committing violations of the Texas Election Code. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

“I’m not just asking that for me, I’m asking that for every poll watcher,” Fleck said. “When Dana DeBeauvoir obstructed poll watchers, she not only didn’t allow Republican poll watchers in the room, she didn’t allow Democrat poll watchers into the room, so even Democrat voters should be concerned that they’re being obstructed, and they’re not being allowed to do their job.”

Despite the change, Fleck believes the new arrangement is still preventing poll watchers from performing their duties by corralling them inside the counting station.

“I don’t appreciate the work-arounds. I don’t think it’s transparent, and I think it’s illegal activity,” Fleck said.

John Wood and his wife Cornelia Foster were part of the poll watcher group who filed affidavits with the Secretary of State’s Office in the July 2020 election. Both believe DeBeauvoir’s move makes no difference at this point.

“Well, after the bodies already hit the floor, it’s a little late to say I promise to never do it again. But, better later than never, I guess. There are upcoming elections,” Wood said.

We made multiple requests for interviews and to have access to photograph the new counting room set up, but DeBeauvoir’s office never responded to any of our requests.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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