Given the antipathy toward members of the media these days, I was anxious as I headed into Williamson County, Texas, to talk to voters in that deeply conservative area just north of Austin. I’d also never actually reported from a polling place before. How would voters react to me?
Amazingly, nearly every person I approached talked with me. I spoke to conservatives, liberals and people who were on the fence, struggling to reconcile how they’ve voted historically with how they felt they should vote this year. Multiple people talked about the character of President Donald Trump and about decency, etiquette and respect.
It wasn’t just the political issues these voters were thinking about — they were considering something more basic: how we treat each other as human beings.
My anxiety morphed into excitement. I enjoyed hearing what the voters had to say, and I was relieved by the kindness of these folks who spoke with me, a stranger, about deeply personal issues.
So, with my spirit buoyed, I went to the next polling place on my list and approached the end of a long line of people waiting outside of a grocery store. I’d done my research — or so I thought — and as far as I could tell, the law only specified that I couldn’t use devices capable of recording sound or images within 100 feet of the voting stations. Figuring I was far enough away from the voting stations inside, I pulled out my notebook and my pen and spoke to several voters until an election worker spotted me and started yelling.
“You have to leave or I’m going to have you arrested!” she screamed at me.
“I’m sorry, I wasn’t aware I couldn’t be here,” I said, startled, and immediately started to walk away.
“You know the rules. If I see you here again I’m calling the cops!” she screamed.
As I continued walking away, with her walking beside me, continuing to yell at me to get off the property or she’d “have me arrested,” I tried to ask her about the rules, telling her I was confused.
“Where is 100 feet?” I asked. “So the rules apply to more than just recording and taking pictures?”
She ushered me toward a TV reporter I hadn’t previously noticed, who had her camera set up behind the invisible-to-my-eyes, 100-foot line.
The election worker’s cries of “I’ll have you arrested” – I lost count of the number of times she yelled it as I was walking away – are still ringing in my ears.
The dozens of people waiting in line and the handful of electioneers holding signs nearby gaped at me, and it was all a bit embarrassing.
Reflecting upon this interaction, I wondered why the woman had chosen to speak to me that way. Clearly, she takes her job seriously. But why did she yell? Why did she begin the interaction with threats? Why couldn’t she have approached me with some civility?
And I worried, too, about the effect that witnessing this interaction might have on all of those voters waiting in line, or approaching the store to vote. Did I unwittingly sour their voting experience for them? Would they feel intimidated by this official, and, in turn, by the entire process of voting?
In this same county on Friday, but at a different polling place, an election supervisor who has since resigned was caught on video screaming at a voter who was confused about where she could vote. In the video, the supervisor tells the would-be voter to leave before she calls the cops.
Williamson County Elections Administrator Chris Davis told local ABC affiliate KVUE that poll workers are trained and advised to “maintain control of the situation politely and answer voters’ questions and give voters options so situations like these don’t escalate.”
After a bit of research, I can now see that what I was doing could, perhaps, be considered facilitation of electioneering. I was asking people why they came out to vote and, in their answers, they did express their “preference for or against” candidates and political parties, which is the secretary of state’s broad definition of electioneering.
I’ve always heard people discussing politics while waiting in line at the polls in Texas, so it didn’t register for me that this was potentially illegal. Additionally, Texas law also permits “non-disruptive exit polling within the 100-foot boundaries.”
The election laws in the Lone Star State are confusing — even for a legal news reporter. I only wish the election official I encountered had tried to explain the law to me before threatening me.