HOUSTON — The red dot of a laser pointer circled downtown Houston on a map during a virtual training of poll watchers by the Harris County Republican Party. It highlighted densely populated, largely Black, Latino and Asian neighborhoods.
“This is where the fraud is occurring,” a county Republican official said falsely in a leaked video of the training, which was held in March. A precinct chair in the northeastern, largely white suburbs of Houston, he said he was trying to recruit people from his area “to have the confidence and courage” to act as poll watchers in the circled areas in upcoming elections.
A question at the bottom corner of the slide indicated just how many poll watchers the party wanted to mobilize: “Can we build a 10K Election Integrity Brigade?”
As Republican lawmakers in major battleground states seek to make voting harder and more confusing through a web of new election laws, they are simultaneously making a concerted legislative push to grant more autonomy and access to partisan poll watchers — citizens trained by a campaign or a party and authorized by local election officials to observe the electoral process.
This effort has alarmed election officials and voting rights activists alike: There is a long history of poll watchers being used to intimidate voters and harass election workers, often in ways that target Democratic-leaning communities of color and stoke fears that have the overall effect of voter suppression. During the 2020 election, President Donald J. Trump’s campaign repeatedly promoted its “army” of poll watchers as he publicly implored supporters to venture into heavily Black and Latino cities and hunt for voter fraud.
Republicans have offered little evidence to justify a need for poll watchers to have expanded access and autonomy. As they have done for other election changes — including reduced early voting, stricter absentee ballot requirements and limits on drop boxes — they have grounded their reasoning in arguments that their voters want more secure elections. That desire was born in large part out of Mr. Trump’s repeated lies about last year’s presidential contest, which included complaints about insufficient poll watcher access.
Now, with disputes over the rules governing voting now at a fever pitch, the rush to empower poll watchers threatens to inject further tension into elections.
Both partisan and nonpartisan poll watching have been a key component of American elections for years, and Republicans and Democrats alike have routinely sent trained observers to the polls to monitor the process and report back on any worries. In recent decades, laws have often helped keep aggressive behavior at bay, preventing poll watchers from getting too close to voters or election officials, and maintaining a relatively low threshold for expelling anyone who misbehaves.
But now Republican state lawmakers in 20 states have introduced at least 40 bills that would expand the powers of poll watchers, and 12 of those bills in six states are currently progressing through legislatures, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
In Texas, the Republican-controlled Legislature is advancing legislation that would allow them to photograph and video-record voters receiving assistance, as well as make it extremely difficult for election officials to order the removal of poll watchers.
The video-recording measure has particularly alarmed voting rights groups, which argue that it could result in the unwanted identification of a voter in a video posted on social media, or allow isolated incidents to be used by partisan news outlets to craft a widespread narrative.
“If you have a situation, for example, where people who are poll workers do not have the ability to throw out anybody at the polls who is being disruptive or anyone at the polls who is intimidating voters, that’s essentially authorizing voter intimidation,” said Jon Greenbaum, chief counsel for the nonpartisan Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Republicans have been increasingly open in recent years about their intent to line up legions of supporters to monitor the polls. Following the lead of Mr. Trump, they have often framed the observational role in militaristic tones, amplifying their arguments of its necessity with false claims of widespread fraud. Just three years ago, the courts lifted a consent decree that for more than three decades had barred the Republican National Committee from taking an active role in poll watching; in 2020, the committee jumped back into the practice.
In Florida, Republicans in the State Legislature passed a new election bill on Thursday that includes a provision allowing one partisan poll watcher per candidate on the ballot during the inspection of votes. The measure carries the potential to significantly overcrowd election officials. The bill also does not stipulate any distance that poll watchers must keep from election workers.
In Michigan, a G.O.P. bill would allow challengers to sit close enough to read poll books, tabulators and other election records, and would let them challenge a voter’s eligibility if they had “a good reason.”
The Republican drive to empower poll watchers adds to the mounting evidence that much of the party continues to view the 2020 election through the same lens as Mr. Trump, who has repeatedly argued that his losses in key states must have been because of fraud.
“It seems like the No. 1 goal of these laws is to perpetuate the Big Lie,” said Dale Ho, the director of the Voting Rights Project at the A.C.L.U. “So when you get these unfounded charges that there was fraud or cheating in the election and people say, ‘Well, that’s not detected,’ the purveyors of these lies say, ‘That’s because we weren’t able to observe.’”
After the election last year, complaints that poll watchers had not been given enough access, or that their accusations of improperly cast ballots had been ignored, fueled numerous lawsuits filed by the Trump campaign and its Republican allies, nearly all of which failed.
In Texas, the leaked video of the Harris County Republican Party’s training, which was published by the voting rights group Common Cause, recalled a similar episode from the 2010 midterm elections.
That year, a Tea Party-affiliated group in Houston known as the King Street Patriots sent poll watchers to downtown polling locations. The flood of the mostly white observers into Black neighborhoods caused friction, and resurfaced not-too-distant memories when racial intimidation at the polls was commonplace in the South.
The King Street Patriots would eventually evolve into True the Vote, one of the major national organizations now seeking more voting restrictions. Last year, True the Vote joined several lawsuits alleging fraud in the election (all failed) and led countrywide drives to try to recruit more poll watchers.
Access for poll watchers is considered sacred by Texas Republicans; in the Legislature, they cited the difficulty in finding observers for drive-through voting and 24-hour voting as one of their reasons for proposing to ban such balloting methods.
“Both parties want to have poll watchers, need to have poll watchers present,” State Senator Bryan Hughes, a Republican who sponsored the chamber’s version of the bill, said in an interview last month. “That protects everyone.”
While the antagonistic language from the Trump campaign about its poll watchers was already a flash point in November, Democrats and voting rights groups are worried that relaxed rules will lead to more reports of aggressive behavior.
In 2020, there were at least 44 reports of inappropriate behavior by poll watchers in Harris County, according to county records obtained by The New York Times.
At one polling site on the outskirts of Houston, Cindy Wilson, the nonpartisan election official in charge, reported two aggressive poll watchers who she said had bothered voters and repeatedly challenged the staff.
“Two Poll watchers stood close to the black voters (less than 3 feet away) and engaged in what I describe as intimidating behavior,” Ms. Wilson wrote in an email to the Harris County clerk that was obtained by The Times through an open records request.
Ms. Wilson said she was not sure which campaign or party the observers were representing.
Of course, plenty of interactions with poll workers went smoothly. Merrilee C. Peterson, a poll watcher for a local Republican candidate, worked at a different site, the NRG Arena, and reported no tensions of note.
“We still had some of the problems of not thinking we were allowed to get close enough to see,” she said. “But once the little kinks were worked out, quite frankly we worked very well with the poll workers.”
In Florida, crowding was the chief concern of election officials.
Testifying before state senators, Mark Earley, the vice president of the Florida Supervisors of Elections, said that “as an association, we are very concerned” about the number of poll watchers who would now be allowed to observe the process of duplicating a voter’s damaged or erroneously marked ballot. He said it presented “very grave security risks.”
Mr. Earley was backed by at least one Republican, State Senator Jeff Brandes, who found the provision for poll watchers unnecessary and dangerous.
“I don’t think we should have to install risers in the supervisor of elections offices or bars by which they can hang upside down in order to ensure that there is a transparent process,” Mr. Brandes said.
But perhaps no other state had a conflict involving poll watchers erupt onto cable news as Michigan did. On Election Day and the day after in November, Republican poll watchers grew increasingly obstructive at the TCF Center in Detroit, where absentee ballots were counted as it became clear that Mr. Trump was losing in the state.
It began with a huddle of Republican observers around midday on Nov. 4, according to affidavits from Democratic poll watchers, nonpartisan observers and election officials.
Soon after, the Republicans “began to fan out around the room,” wrote Dan McKernan, an election worker.
Then they ramped up their objections, accusing workers of entering incorrect birth years or backdating ballots. In some cases, the poll watchers lodged blanket claims of wrongdoing.
“The behavior in the room changed dramatically in the afternoon: The rage in the room from Republican challengers was nothing like I had ever experienced in my life,” wrote Anjanette Davenport Hatter, another election worker.
Mr. McKernan wrote: “Republicans were challenging everything at the two tables I could see. When the ballot envelope was opened, they would say they couldn’t see it clearly. When the next envelope was opened, they made the same complaint. They were objecting to every single step down the line for no good reason.”
The chaos provided some of the basis for Michigan officials to debate whether to certify the results, but a state board did so that month.
Now, the Republican-controlled Legislature in Michigan is proposing to bar nonpartisan observers from acting as poll watchers, allowing only partisan challengers to do so.
While widespread reports of intimidation never materialized last year, voting rights groups say the atmosphere after the election represents a dangerous shift in American elections.
“It really hasn’t been like this for decades, generally speaking, even though there’s a long and storied history of it,” said Michael Waldman, a legal expert at the Brennan Center. Aggressive partisan poll watchers, he said, were “a longstanding barrier to voting in the United States, and it was also largely solved. And this risks bringing it back.”