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Amid Texas GOP’s effort to question electoral integrity, attorney general tried to indict Travis County elections chief

By Reese Oxner, The Texas Tribune

Amid Texas GOP’s effort to question electoral integrity, attorney general tried to indict Travis County elections chief” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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In the latest Republican effort to surface scrutinizing the 2020 presidential election, Travis County’s elections chief revealed that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton pursued criminal charges against her over how she performed her duties last year.

Austin American-Statesman opinion writer Bridget Grumet first reported Monday that Paxton attempted to indict Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir early this year. DeBeauvoir said she felt Paxton was trying to intimidate her to score political points.

“It was intended to be intimidating, and, try as I might, some of that was successful,” DeBeauvoir said in an interview with The Texas Tribune. “I certainly did not expect it.”

The case never reached trial and was thrown out by a grand jury in Williamson County in April. DeBeauvoir said she wasn’t notified until July.

Paxton’s office sought to indict DeBeauvoir on a charge of unlawfully obstructing a poll watcher, which under a new voting law that went into effect this month would be a Class A misdemeanor that’s punishable by up to a year in jail, a fine of up to $4,000 or both.

For DeBeauvoir, the uncertainty stretched over months — during which she racked up $75,000 in attorney fees, she said. The county later reimbursed those fees, though DeBeauvoir didn’t know if it would when she paid them, she said.

Paxton did not respond to the Tribune’s requests for comment. Paxton also did not respond to multiple requests by the Statesman, the publication noted.

Paxton won’t be able to wage similar cases against other election administrators. Last week, the all-Republican Texas Court of Criminal Appeals voted to strip Texas’ top lawyer of the ability to initiate election cases on his own, citing separation of powers. Now, the attorney general’s office can only step in if a local prosecutor asks for help.

DeBeauvoir faced backlash over her role overlooking last year’s presidential elections, just like many other election workers throughout the country, who faced a surge of threats and intimidation attempts.

Paxton’s effort to charge DeBeauvoir came at a time when many Texas Republicans questioned the integrity of last year’s election despite there being no evidence of widespread voter fraud. Paxton is a political ally of former President Donald Trump, who spearheaded false rumors that the 2020 election — which he won in Texas but lost nationally — was stolen.

Grand jury proceedings are behind closed doors, so its deliberations in DeBeauvoir’s case are unknown. She said she never had the opportunity to speak to them and was largely left in the dark until she learned that they had dismissed the case.

The Texas secretary of state’s office asked Paxton to start a criminal investigation into DeBeauvoir after a complaint from Jennifer Fleck, who worked as a poll watcher in Travis County, according to Austin news channel KXAN-TV.

Fleck alleged that she was obstructed “from entering and completing her duties at the Travis County central counting station,” according to a secretary of state letter obtained by KXAN.

DeBeauvoir said the biggest challenge she faced during last year’s election came from poll watchers, who, unlike election workers, are inherently partisan figures, appointed by candidates and political parties to observe voting at polling places.

She said some of the partisan poll watchers would scream in the faces of election workers, intentionally get close to them without masks and improperly hover over voters — especially people of color who might not have spoken English as a first language.

“These poll watchers were getting in people’s faces and [would] scream and spit. We’re in the middle of a pandemic. So the idea is that they’re either deliberately trying to infect people or they’re just intimidating with that implication,” she said.

DeBeauvoir said she limited the number of poll watchers who could be in the areas where votes were being tallied and had some of them observe the vote count through another room with windows overlooking it. Some poll watchers complained, saying they couldn’t see or hear clearly what was happening in the next room.

The Travis County GOP also filed a complaint to the Texas Supreme Court over these concerns, which the court declined to take up.

The two sides reached a settlement and compromised over a new agreement during the pandemic — one in which DeBeauvoir agreed not to sequester poll watchers or block them from being inside the counting station, but allowed her to require that they wear masks while the pandemic is ongoing, she said. The solution seemed to appease the Travis County GOP, as party officials later thanked DeBeauvoir and the county “for their hard work in coming to this agreement.”

DeBeauvoir is retiring after more than three decades working as Travis County’s election administrator on Jan. 28 — her 68th birthday. She said the decision was made for personal reasons and was not related to Paxton’s indictment, adding that she didn’t want others to think he was successful in his efforts to intimidate her.

But DeBeauvoir said she is concerned for the future of democracy and the way elections are conducted. One of her concerns is over the state’s controversial voting law passed this year that restricts the voting process and narrows local control over elections.

“We’ve got new challenges and we’re going to have to figure out ways to take care of one another,” she said.

The sweeping law strengthens partisan poll watchers’ autonomy within polling places and guarantees their “free movement” within the locations, except for being present at a voting station when a voter is filling out a ballot.

The law also makes it a criminal offense to obstruct poll watchers’ views or distance them “in a manner that would make observation not reasonably effective.”

Before the law’s changes, poll watchers were already entitled to sit or stand “conveniently near” election workers, and it was a criminal offense to prevent them from observing.

In changes pushed by Democrats, the law also requires training for poll watchers and allows for them to be removed from a polling place without warning if they violate the state Penal Code. A previous version of the bill allowed them to be kicked out only for violating the law or the election code after receiving one warning.

Remi Garza, president of the Texas Association of Elections Administrators and Cameron County elections administrator, said the new penalties in the law add a level of uncertainty to the process that might have a dampening effect on who decides to help with elections — a prospect he finds concerning.

The law hasn’t been tested in court yet, so it’s unclear what the potential impacts could be, he said.

“The uncertainty primarily is coming from the changes to the election code that added more aggressive penalties for everyday events at a polling location,” he said. “I think there’s a legitimate concern by these volunteers who work elections that they will become targets because of issues outside of the polling place.”

Disclosure: The Texas secretary of state has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribunes journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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