Fast forward to today and officials in the state have quite a different message for a certain group of outsiders: You are not welcome here.
On Thursday, Texas’ attorney general Greg Abbott, a Republican, warned Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that international election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), who are planning to observe balloting in the state, must obey Texas law.
The 56-member Vienna-based OSCE announced earlier this month that it would send 44 observers to polling places around the country on Election Day in order to monitor possible disputes that could arise in the voting process.
Abbott’s letter to Clinton followed one he wrote on Tuesday to the Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the OSCE’s monitoring arm, in which he warned that failure to follow Texas law could subject OSCE representatives to criminal prosecution.
“It may be a criminal offense for OSCE’s representatives to maintain a presence within 100 feet of a polling place’s entrance,” he said. “Failure to comply with these requirements could subject the OSCE’s representatives to criminal prosecution for violating state law.”
The OSCE’s decision to send monitors came in response to a petition from voting rights groups, including the NAACP and ACLU, that suggested the presence of its observers could help combat what they fear will be a concerted effort to stymie votes from supporters of President Barack Obama.
Concerns have been growing following reports that right-leaning groups, such as the tea party-aligned True The Vote, had plans to dispatch teams of poll-watchers seeking to root out invalid votes. Civil liberties advocates have warned that the volunteer “poll challengers” will engage in intimidation of legitimate minority voters who tend to vote Democratic.
Abbott began his letter to the OSCE by stating that “it remains unclear exactly what your monitoring is intended to achieve, or precisely what tactics you will use to achieve the proposed monitoring.”
He then raised concerns about the organization’s contact with Project Vote, a nationwide group that advocates against voter ID laws. Project Vote said in a statement that it recently advised OSCE about “areas of concern for voting rights this election.”
Texas’ Republican-controlled legislature passed a voter ID law last year, but it was struck down by a federal court in Washington before it could be implemented for the upcoming election. Abbott has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
An Oct. 19 OSCE report outlining its plans to observe the election notes that efforts to implement stricter voter ID laws in U.S. states “have become highly polarized.”
The report says that “Democrats are concerned that these would disenfranchise eligible voters, while Republicans believe they are necessary to protect the integrity of the vote.” It does not express an opinion about the merits of the laws.
“If OSCE members want to learn more about our election processes so they can improve their own democratic systems, we welcome the opportunity to discuss the measures Texas has implemented to protect the integrity of elections,” wrote Abbott to the ODIHR.
“However, groups and individuals from outside the United States are not allowed to influence or interfere with the election process in Texas.”
State Department in the middle
On Wednesday, Ambassador Janez Lenarcic, director of the monitoring arm, responded in a letter to Clinton, saying that Abbott’s threat put the state of Texas at odds with an agreement between the body and state authorities.
“The threat of criminal sanctions against OSCE/ODIHR observers is unacceptable,” Lenarcic wrote. “The United States, like all countries in the OSCE, has an obligation to invite ODIHR observers to observe its elections.”
Lenarcic objected to insinuations that officials in the group would meddle with elections, pointing out that they were bound by national laws and regulations, as well as their own strict code of conduct.
“Our observers are required to remain strictly impartial and not to intervene in the voting process in any way,” he said. “They are in the United States to observe these elections, not to interfere in them.”
On Thursday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters that Texas officials had been reassured that OSCE will comply with state laws.
Nuland added that the election observers are afforded diplomatic immunity. “In general we give them protected status, as we expect of our people when we participate in OSCE delegations,” she said.
Hours later, Abbott wrote to say he had not been given adequate assurances, and he refuted Lenarcic’s assertion that the threat of criminal sanctions contradicted commitments made by the United States, including in the 1990 OSCE Copenhagen document.
“The fact that representatives of the United States joined the U.S.S.R, Yugoslavia, Romania, and other OSCE member-nations in signing a document at a 1989 conference in Copenhagen has absolutely no bearing on the administration of elections or laws governing elections in the State of Texas,” Abbott wrote.
“It appears that OSCE is under the misimpression that the State Department can somehow help its representatives circumvent the Texas Election Code.”
The lone state
“To my knowledge it’s the only state that came forward and said, “Please reassure us, that you’re gonna [sic] follow our state electoral law,” said Nuland in her briefing.
Republican Gov. Rick Perry has thrown his support behind Abbott, tweeting, “No UN monitors/inspectors will be part of any TX election process.” Unfortunately, the OSCE is not an arm of the United Nations.
The controversy is just the latest fight Abbott has taken beyond Texas. His office has filed two dozen lawsuits against the federal government since President Barack Obama took office, many of which have ended in defeat.