Federal judge tells Beaumont election officials not to harass or discriminate against Black voters

Voters wait in line to cast their ballots at Dan Ruiz Branch Library in Austin on Election Day. Nov. 3, 2020. (Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune, Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune)

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Allegations that Black voters were harassed and intimidated during early voting at a Beaumont polling place prompted a federal judge to issue an order early Tuesday morning directing Jefferson County to prohibit discriminatory behavior.

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In the order — issued after an emergency hearing Monday evening — federal District Judge Michael J. Truncale prohibited Jefferson County election workers from scrutinizing the identities of Black voters voters and, along with poll watchers, from shadowing them at voting stations.

The order is limited to the John Paul Davis Community Center in Beaumont, which predominantly serves Black voters. It stemmed from a federal lawsuit filed Monday by the Beaumont chapter of the NAACP and Jessica Daye, a Black registered voter, accusing Jefferson County election officials of unconstitutionally harassing Black voters.

"White poll workers throughout early voting repeatedly asked in aggressive tones only Black voters and not White voters to recite, out loud within the earshot of other voters, poll workers, and poll watchers, their addresses, even when the voter was already checked in by a poll worker," the suit claims.

To be checked in, voters must present a photo ID to verify their identity. The election worker checking them in will then pull up the list of registered voters to locate the voter and compare their name.

Once they’ve determined the voter is registered, the Texas Election Code says the election worker must ask if the address on their voter registration record has changed. Though Texas requires photo ID to vote, the address on the ID does not have to match what’s on a voter’s registration record. Once this is verified, the voter will be asked to sign a roster and then directed to the voting area.

"White poll workers and White poll watchers followed Black voters and in some cases their Black voter assistants around the polling place, including standing two feet behind a Black voter and the assistant, while the voter was at the machine casting a ballot,” the suit continued. "White poll workers helped White voters scan their voted ballots into voting machines but did not similarly help Black voters scan their ballots.”

No other person — except the person assisting a voter — is allowed to be present while they prepare their ballot, according to the Secretary of State’s handbook for election judges.

Daye witnessed such behavior while in line to cast her ballot last week at a community center that serves a predominantly Black community in north Beaumont where she typically votes, the suit claims. Daye was a few feet behind an elderly Black voter who, the lawsuit alleges, had already been checked in to vote by a Black election worker. But when the voter moved down the table to where a white poll worker stood, the poll worker “aggressively asked the elderly Black voter to show him her identification again and recite her address out loud to him.”

Daye abandoned the polling place without voting for fear of facing the same treatment and plans to vote at a different polling place on Election Day. White voters, the lawsuit claims, were not asked to recite their addresses out loud after already being checked in.

The lawsuit also included affidavits from election workers and a voter assistant who witnessed similar behavior.

The judge denied a request from Daye and the NAACP to declare the election workers’ actions unconstitutional treatment of Black voters in violation of the 14th and 15th Amendments as well as a violation of the federal Voting Rights Act which guarantees the right to vote without intimidation. But he did grant their request to block county election workers from engaging in the same behavior during Election Day and ordered the county clerk, who oversees elections, to “fully implement” and send notice of his ruling to election workers staffing the John Paul Davis Community Center on Election Day.

The county’s election manager said Tuesday morning that the presiding election judge who oversaw the polling place during early voting was no longer at the voting site and that Election Day workers had been instructed not to engage in similar behavior. The community center will also be staffed by a different team for Election Day, which is typical as counties expand from the more limited number of polling locations used during early voting.

Located to the east of Houston, the city of Beaumont sits in the northeast corner of Jefferson County. While Jefferson County is majority white, Beaumont’s population is 45% Black and 43.5% white.

“Of course it's difficult to experience that kind of intimidation because voting should be easy, it should be encouraging, it should be a welcoming experience, especially for those voters who are going in person to vote,” said Pooja Chaudhuri, a voting rights counsel with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which filed the lawsuit after receiving calls about the intimidation voters were facing through a national voter protection hotline.

“And so it is unfortunate to see that experience become unwelcome and discouraging and frankly in this case intimidating, but we always tell voters you’re not alone,” Chaudhuri said.

Polls close at 7 p.m.

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