In March 2021, a Harris County Republican Party precinct chair delivered a Zoom presentation to fellow party members about a new “election integrity brigade.” Identifying himself as a member of the party’s ballot security committee, the man, who gave his name as Bill, outlined a plan to “build an army here of 10,000 people in Harris County, motivated and highly confident folks to serve as election workers and poll watchers, to basically safeguard our voting rights and our voting obligations.” The party would recruit the 10,000 poll watchers from suburban Harris County, then deploy them to predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods in central Houston, “where the fraud is occurring.” Bill cited a particular need to monitor the polling place in Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church, a historic Black place of worship that hosted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on his first visit to Houston.
The fifty-minute presentation was leaked to the government accountability group Common Cause Texas, which published the full video on its website. In a statement to the Washington Post, local party chair Cindy Siegel, who declined an interview request from Texas Monthly, acknowledged the authenticity of the presentation. But following a national outcry from voting-rights activists, the Harris County GOP appeared to have put the election integrity brigade on ice.
Last Wednesday, the Harris County GOP announced in an email that it would assemble “Election Rapid Response Teams” for the May 24 runoff election. “These teams will be regionally placed around the county and will be ready for dispatch at a moment’s notice,” the email reads. “Like a fire fighter who stands on guard and ready when there is an emergency, we will need YOU to fill the gaps and be ready to respond when we have an Election Day emergency.” In the same email, the party said it would hire one hundred paid poll watchers to monitor the runoff election as a “pilot for future elections,” without specifying where they’d be deployed.
Under Texas election code, any candidate, political action committee, or political party can place as many as two poll watchers at a time at each Election Day polling place. These watchers are usually volunteers, however, and according to state law, must complete an online training course prior to serving. The move to pay poll watchers concerns voting-rights activists, who worry the GOP is recruiting a private security force to harass voters.
Party spokesperson Genevieve Carter told me the rapid response teams and poll watchers were needed to combat what she called the “incompetence” of Harris County elections administrator Isabel Longoria. Longoria received bipartisan criticism for her handling of the March 1 primary, in which dozens of voting machines broke down and about 10,000 ballots were accidentally left out of the original count. She announced her resignation the following week but is staying in office until the county appoints her replacement.
To others, though, the GOP plan sounded oddly familiar. “This is the same group that sought to recruit an army of people to go into minority areas of Houston to intimidate voters,” said Sarah Labowitz, policy and advocacy director for the ACLU of Texas. “It seems like they’re doing exactly what they said they would be doing.”
It remains unclear how many rapid responders and poll watchers the party was able to recruit, and what exactly they will be doing on Election Day. The party held training sessions for the rapid response teams and the poll watchers on Thursday and Saturday. Officials with the Harris County GOP rejected my request to attend one, and none of a dozen or so attendees of a training session at the party’s Houston headquarters on Saturday afternoon would chat with me.
Voter fraud is virtually nonexistent in Texas; the attorney general received fewer than 200 complaints between 2015 and 2020 and ended up prosecuting 55 voters. In 2020, the office spent twice as much time working on voter fraud cases as in 2018, yet it resolved just 16 prosecutions, all of which involved Texans who gave false addresses on their voter registration forms. None received any jail time. (To put that in perspective, more than 11 million Texans voted for president in the 2020 general election.) But Harris County Republicans, who haven’t won a countywide race since 2014, have been alleging electoral shenanigans for years. In October 2020, a former Houston police officer ran an air-conditioning repairman off the road then held him at gunpoint while he searched his truck for fraudulent mail ballots. (None were found.) The officer was one of more than a dozen private investigators that Republican activist Steven Hotze hired in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election. Both the officer and Hotze face charges of unlawful restraint and felony assault.
“That’s what happens when the GOP takes things into their own hands,” said Harris County Democratic chair Odus Evbagharu. “I’m very concerned that there will be violence, that people will misuse and abuse this kind of rapid response team. I think this is them following the lead of Steven Hotze.” Carter, the Republican party spokesperson, denied that Hotze was funding the rapid response and poll watching teams. She said the money came from the national and state party, as well as local donors.
In the wake of the botched primary election, what little trust existed between the local GOP and Harris County elections administrator Longoria has withered away. Last week, in an effort to speed up the vote count—Harris County is usually the last large county in Texas to report results—Longoria announced that for Tuesday’s runoffs she would deputize county employees, including law enforcement officials, to help pick up ballots and voting machines from polling stations and deliver them to the central count location at NRG Park—a method the administrator had used in the May 7 special election. In response, the GOP instructed its election judges not to cooperate with the deputized officials, instead telling them to drive the ballots to NRG Park themselves. The Texas Secretary of State also weighed in to say that Longoria’s plan violated the Texas Election Code.
In recent days, her office appears to have backtracked. A spokesperson told Texas Monthly that any county employees involved in transporting ballots on Tuesday would have to be designated by an election judge, as the election code specifies.
If the Harris County GOP’s goal is a more efficient election, as it has claimed, its tactics seem likely to have the opposite effect. After all, the point of deputizing county employees is to speed up ballot delivery and tabulation. But if the goal is to sow distrust in the election process, then the party may be succeeding. “We’re concerned about the issues that have happened in the past few elections, and in the March 1 primary,” said Carter, the GOP spokesperson. “And we’re concerned about seeing that on a larger scale in November. It’s important that we protect the vote.”