AUSTIN (KXAN) — Hours away from Election Day, Travis County election judge Pamela Bixby and her team were preparing for voters at Zilker Elementary school.
“Just setting up the few things that we can set up before Election Day. Electrical things … signage and things like that,” Bixby said.
Tuesday, she’ll unlock and set up the ballot machines and direct poll workers.
As an election judge of about five years and a poll worker for a few election cycles before that, she’s trained extensively on all the protocols.
But this election, she’s a little worried about poll watchers.
“They are allowed to observe the activity in the polling location, but they cannot disrupt it and they cannot talk to a voter,” Bixby said.
She hasn’t gotten one before, but under new Texas law, Senate Bill 1, candidates or parties can appoint a poll watcher to watch out for and report any election code violations at polling places.
Gov. Greg Abbott signed SB1 into law last year, following up on measures taken during the 2020 election.
Opponents, particularly Democrats, said the law is “voter suppression” — especially among communities of color. State Republicans, including Abbott, said SB 1 makes it “harder to cheat.”
“Of course, in a democracy, we want people to see the process. But sometimes those who are observing the process, try to be disruptive,” said Jeremi Suri, history and public policy professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
He said Texas has a history of that.
“Unfortunately, there’s a long history in this state of intimidation, where people will threaten those who are coming to vote or will try to retaliate against them for voting… where people look at someone and say, ‘you don’t look like you’re a citizen, you shouldn’t be here,'” Suri explained.
He said he and other experts are worried that may happen Tuesday.
“The real fraud in our elections is not what happens when we vote. It’s what’s done to make it hard for certain people to vote. And we need to facilitate this process as best we can,” Suri said.
Poll watchers have to go through training with the Texas Secretary of State, present their certificate to the election judge at the polling site and wear identification.
Bastrop County’s elections administrator Kristin Miles said they’ve started to see watchers at their polling places, which historically has not been the norm.
“I just think the political climate is a little bit different in this election than in past elections. People are more interested in the process,” Miles said.
She’s recommended her poll workers also take the poll watchers training.
“So that they’re aware that poll watchers do play a vital role in elections, but that they’re also aware of what poll watchers are able to do inside the polling location, and that our election workers are properly trained,” she said.
She said with the population growth and offering voting at any location, they expect busy lines at all polling places on Tuesday.
If there’s a disruption, she said poll workers will call her office or the police.
Bixby has read the poll watchers guide, too.
She said she was surprised by some of the things watchers are allowed to do — like request to see a voter’s finished ballot if a poll worker helped them.
“If the poll watchers saw that poll worker gave assistance, that poll watcher could request to look at the ballot that the voter is holding on to, which to me is is just a huge red flag about privacy,” Bixby said. “But they’re allowed to do that, according to the new law.”
She worries that could be seen as voter intimidation, but she hopes there are no disruptions.
“I hope, and I anticipate that there will be no problems. But it makes me a little anxious,” she said.
How many poll watchers will be dispatched on Tuesday?
A spokesperson for the Travis County Democratic Party said they will have “a robust effort covering a lot of polling locations” but did not specify how many people they have enlisted.
They added they did see an increased interest in folks wanting to become poll watchers who were mobilized by SB1.
They also said along with the state’s training, watchers go through a party training, too.
Spokesperson Andy Hogue for the Travis County Republican Party said while they’ve recruited a handful of poll watchers, many are going through other groups and conservative organizations.
“With poll watchers, there’s rarely enough volunteers to cover all 160+ voting locations in Travis County, so we usually let them pick. Sometimes there may be multiple at a location, but that’s rare,” he said.
Hogue said the state’s GOP also has sponsored trainings for poll watchers “to look out for various irregularities, politicking within the boundary line, etc.”
He also added they encourage watchers to work closely with election staff at their polling location “to address or settle any issues as locally as possible.”
Hogue said if that doesn’t work, they advise watchers to report to them, and the county party then works with elections officials and other authorities.
You can read more about the Travis County Republican Party’s process here.