Voters in Texas are facing an onslaught of voter intimidation tactics in the lead-up to the midterm elections next week—and in at least one instance the intimidation is allegedly being carried out by a prominent member of the local Republican Party.
Last week, a woman in Austin reported an incident of voter intimidation at her home allegedly carried out by a member of the Travis County Republican Party to the Texas Civil Rights Project.
“We received a very alarming report over the past week about a precinct chair of the Travis County Republican Party, knocking on people’s doors, accusing them of illegally voting by mail, even though the people we spoke with were clearly eligible to vote by mail,” Christina Beeler, a voting rights staff attorney with the civil rights group, told VICE News. “They were being extremely aggressive.”
The voter in Austin said that the person at the door identified herself as a precinct chair and the voter was later able to identify the person as a precinct chair for the Travis County Republican Party. The woman was accompanied by an unidentified man and accused the voter of illegally voting by mail. Beeler said the campaign appeared to be targeting people who have been voting by mail because the list of people who vote by mail is available publicly.
The hostile and confrontational nature of voter intimidation tactics in Texas has increased significantly in recent weeks.
Throughout the state, in addition to aggressive door-knocking campaigns, VICE News has also uncovered reports of election officials demanding that voters hand over their smartphones and smartwatches before voting and found that some poll workers looking over voters’ shoulders and wearing obviously partisan attire while inside the polling stations. Threatening letter-writing campaigns to voters have occurred as well.
As concerns about voter intimidation heat up nationwide, and armed groups threaten voting locations, VICE News also spoke with voter rights groups about threats ahead of next week’s midterms.
“I think we’ve had fewer reports of election intimidation, but the reports that we have received have been more egregious than in past elections,” Beeler said. “I think that the aggressive, egregious voter intimidation we have seen during this election cycle has a chilling effect on people and suppresses voter turnout.”
VICE News has also uncovered reports of election officials demanding that voters hand over their smartphones and smartwatches before voting and found that some poll workers looking over voters’ shoulders and wearing obviously partisan attire while inside the polling stations.
The Texas Civil Rights Project doesn’t know how many voters were impacted by this door-knocking campaign from the GOP, but those impacted appear to be among the most vulnerable.
“Some of the most egregious complaints we’ve gotten have involved elderly voters, because some of the door-knocking efforts seem to be targeting people who are voting by mail and in Texas, voters over 65 are eligible to vote by mail automatically,” Beeler told VICE News.
And Beeler pointed out that the door-knocking campaign could impact not only those who hadn’t voted yet but also those who had already sent in their ballot. “You can move to cancel your mail-in ballots, so if you get someone knocking on your door telling you that you’re illegally voting and you’re not informed and you don’t call our hotline and you don’t know about Texas election law, you can move to cancel your ballot,” added Beeler.
The Travis County Republican Party told VICE News it was investigating the incident.
“I think that the aggressive, egregious voter intimidation we have seen during this election cycle has a chilling effect on people and suppresses voter turnout.”
This is not the first time a GOP-linked door-knocking campaign in Texas has tried to intimidate voters. In July, a right-wing group launched a campaign in Harris County, which includes Houston, to obtain non-public personal information from residents.
“The Harris County Elections office has been informed of scammers who are impersonating election workers and going door-to-door in an attempt to obtain private voter information,” the Harris County Election office said in a Facebook post in July. The office also posted a picture of an affidavit that the door knockers were asking residents to sign “under penalty of perjury.”
It turned out that the group running the campaign was the Texas Elections Network, a right-wing group founded last year by Melissa Conway, the Republican National Committee’s Texas state director for election integrity. The group did not respond to VICE News’ request for comment.
The campaign was targeting “communities of color and historically Black neighborhoods here in Houston, trying to challenge the eligibility of certain voters,” Beeler said, adding that the group conducting the campaign submitted hundreds of challenges to the elections administrator in Harris County related to the 2020 election.
There have also been multiple reports of intimidation at early polling locations across the state, and in several instances the intimidation appears to have been racially targeted.
Anthony Gutierrez, the executive director of the nonpartisan voter education group Common Cause Texas, told VICE News that a Black man voting in a predominantly white neighborhood rang the group’s hotline to report that he had been approached by a white man outside a polling location at a southeast Dallas community college and asked to hand over his smartphone and smartwatch before voting.
It was only after the man voted that he realized that the person who had demanded his devices was not an election official, he told Common Cause. Voters are not allowed to use their phones inside polling locations, but there is no rule requiring them to surrender their devices.
Beeler said that the Texas Civil Rights Project also received a very similar call from another Black voter who was also asked to give up their smartphone before voting. But this time, the voter said, they were asked to do so by an election official.
“This particular voter was a black person and there were white voters who were walking in and were not being asked to remove their cellphones or their watches,” Beeler said, adding that her group interceded in the incident and the election worker in question was “reprimanded.”
The Dallas elections office also told the Washington Post this week that it had received multiple reports of poll observers trying inappropriately to confiscate phones and smartwatches from voters.
It was only after the man voted that he realized that the person who had demanded his devices was not an election official.
Gutierrez told VICE News that his group had received many other calls about issues at polling locations, including poll watchers who were taking notes while standing behind the check-in tables at polling locations “in a way that’s making voters unnerved.”
Another voter reported poll watchers “getting way too close to where they could actually see the voter’s screen, as they were trying to cast their ballot,“ Gutierrez said.
And, a Common Cause volunteer this week observed a poll worker wearing “what I would categorize as partisan, dog whistle jewellery,” Gutierrez said. The item was a bracelet that said “Free the J6ers. Arrest the mules.” Gutierrez added that there had been a number of reports made to Common Cause of poll workers wearing partisan hats and t-shirts at other locations.
Some of the voter intimidation tactics included letters being hand-delivered to people’s homes. Residents in Tarrant County, Texas, this week reported receiving letters from someone claiming to be part of a group “investigating the integrity of local elections.” The letter lists the resident’s name and address and claims to known when and where they voted.
The letter also suggests that the person voted in an early polling location that was a long distance from their house, and that “there is an unusually high number of people from our neighborhood traveling to the Stop Six area to vote when there are many early voting sites between here and there.”
The Tarrant County Elections Office warned residents to ignore the letters and tweeted that “voters have the choice to vote at ANY location open in the County. Choosing a location far from your home DOES NOT indicate an “anomaly,” it just means it was convenient for the voter.”
In Travis County, a couple who live in the city of Lakeway told a local Fox station that they received a chilling letter in the mail that criticized their support for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke. The letter called them an “enemy of the state of Texas.”
The letter goes on to make an even more worrying threat: “We also now know that you don’t believe in the Second Amendment and don’t have a gun to protect yourself and your family so you will not be able to protect yourselves. Don’t worry, there are lots of your neighbors that do believe in the Second Amendment and will decide if they want to help you or not if there is an issue.”
The letter called them an “enemy of the state of Texas.”
Sam Taylor, a spokesperson for the Texas secretary of state’s office, told VICE News that his office had received “at least two complaints regarding potential voter intimidation,” but said those complaints are not publicly accessible until “either we’ve determined the complaint does not warrant an investigation by the attorney general, or the attorney general’s investigation is completed:”
“Most of the voter intimidation complaints we’ve been made aware of involve campaign activity, which is not something our office handles,” Taylor said.
JR Johnson, the executive director of the Texas Ethics Commission, told VICE News that he could not “confirm or deny the existence of specific complaints, and our investigations are conducted confidentially.” He said that only after a bipartisan panel of eight commissioners find that a violation has occurred, the final order will be made publicly available on his agency’s website.
But activist groups claim that part of the problem of voter intimidation lies not only with fringe groups but also with the secretary of state’s office itself. Last month, voter rights activists decried the decision by Republican Secretary of State John Scott, who was part of Trump’s legal team in 2020, and Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton to send election monitors to observe the elections in Harris County, claiming it would lead to both voter intimidation and disrupt the counting process.
“It is true that our secretary of state often does send monitors to counties if a certain number of voters request them,” Gutierrez said. “What’s alarming about it for us who work on voting rights in Texas is who our secretary of state is and who our attorney general is. I’ve seen a lot of news about election deniers running for secretary of state posts in other states and that’s who we have in office in Texas now.”
(Scott’s office disputes the suggestion that the secretary of state was an election denier and said he had been subject to death threats himself as a result of speaking out against election deniers.)
Like others across the country working to undermine the election process, the door-knocking campaign groups in Texas are “seemingly informed by right-wing conspiracies,” Beeler said, and specifically by the 2000 Mules conspiracy film that was released by Dinesh D’Souza earlier this year.
D’Souza’s film, which has been thoroughly debunked, is based on bogus claims from a group known as True the Vote which falsely claimed to have obtained cell phone data that proved thousands of so-called “ballot mules” were stuffing drop boxes with fake ballots during the 2020 election.
Earlier this week, a judge in Texas ordered that the two founders of True the Vote, Catherine Engelbrecht and Gregg Phillips, be detained for refusing to disclose the name of the person who supposedly helped them investigate election software company Konnech Inc, which is suing the founders for defamation.
But authorities are concerned that the conspiracies being spread by people like Engelbrecht and Phillips are not only fueling voter intimidation tactics but also increasing the amount of threats from violent extremists, which has been widespread in the weeks leading up to the midterms.
The U.S. government last week warned that election conspiracies could trigger violence around the election. In Arizona, armed election vigilantes were forced to stand down only after a court order. And there has already been some politically linked violence in the build up to election day, including the attack on Nancy Peloi’s husband and the attack on a Democrat running for a state House seat in Pennsylvania that left the candidate unconscious.
Update: This story has been updated with comments from Secretary of State John Scott’s office. Additionally, after this story was published, the Travis County Republican Party told VICE News it was investigating the incident.