Texas to Russian official: Stay out of our polling places

Texas Secretary of State Carlos Cascos has said no to Russian officials’ request to watch Texans vote, according to correspondence obtained by The Texas Tribune.

At least two other states — Louisiana and Oklahoma — also said no to Russian election observers.

“Please note that only persons authorized by law may be inside of a polling location during voting. All other persons are not authorized and would be committing a class C misdemeanor crime by entering,” Cascos wrote last month in a letter to Alexander K. Zakharov, the Russian consul general in Houston. “We are unable to accommodate your request to visit a polling station.”

Cascos was responding to Zakharov’s request, dated Sept. 24, that Texas allow someone in his office inside a polling station on Election Day “with the goal of studying the U.S. experience in organization of voting process.”

In his letter, Cascos instead offered to arrange an informational meeting between the Russians and local officials. Alicia Pierce, his spokeswoman, said Friday that no such meeting was arranged.

Zakharov’s office did not answer a phone call from the Tribune, and it does not appear to use voicemail.

The revelation comes in a presidential year in which Russia is playing a major role. Federal officials suspect the federation hacked into emails published by Wikileaks that have embarrassed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and Republican nominee Donald Trump has stirred controversy by expressing admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Early voting in several states is already underway, and it begins Monday in Texas.

Texas is one of 12 states that explicitly prohibit or limit international election observers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

On Thursday, Kremlin-backed news outlet RT referenced the rejection from the three states in a story that claimed U.S. State Department officials were barring Russians from observing voting anywhere in the country — an accusation U.S. officials deny.

“In violation of all principles of democracy and international monitoring, in Texas they even threatened to hold monitors who appear at ballot stations criminally responsible,” an unnamed source said, according to RT.

‘A PR stunt’

A spokesman for the State Department told POLITICO that the episode was “nothing more than a PR stunt.”

While there is a formal process for foreign governments to observe U.S. elections, individual states maintain the authority to approve or deny those requests, said State Department spokesman Mark Toner.

“Any suggestion that we rejected Russia’s proposal to observe our elections is false,” Toner said in a statement. “Individual parties — foreign governments, NGOs, etc. — are welcome to apply to state governments to observe our elections.”

Russia hasn’t participated in an international mission to observe elections, so its effort to do so on the state level is bogus, Toner said.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the purpose of the requests was uncertain. He added it was “appropriate” that people might be suspicious of Russia’s motives.

The FBI has warned state officials to watch for intrusions into election systems, and officials said they believed Russians were behind an assault on Arizona’s election system. The Department of Homeland Security has offered state and local election officials help in preventing or responding to Election Day cybersecurity disruptions.

States respond

In 2012, Gov. Greg Abbott, then the attorney general, caused a stir when he more forcefully warned a group of international election observers — the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe — not to set foot in a Texas polling place.

“U.N. poll watchers can’t interfere w/ Texas elections,” he tweeted at the time. “I’ll bring criminal charges if needed. Official letter posted soon. #comeandtakeit.”

The Oklahoma secretary of state’s office said it received a letter in August from Russia’s consulate general in Houston seeking to have one of its officers present at a voting precinct to study the “US experience in organization of voting process.” But the office denied the request, noting Oklahoma law prohibits anyone except election officials and voters from being present while voting is taking place.

“While it would be our honor to offer the opportunity to observe our voting process, it is prohibited under state law to allow anyone except election officials and voters in or around the area where voting takes place,” Oklahoma Secretary of State Chris Benge wrote in a response to Alexander Zakharov, Russia’s consul general in Houston.

Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler also denied the request, though he said he would have been glad to oblige during a different year, something his state has done in the past.

Schedler explained that election officials were still reeling from the impact of the historic flooding that devastated a swath of Louisiana in August. In his letter, Schedler said a third of his employees were affected by the flooding and that his short-staffed office was still working to deal with changing precinct locations stemming from the floods.

“Had this flood event not occurred, we certainly would have been open to such a visit, but I cannot meet such a request with the situation I currently have in front of me,” he wrote. Schedler asked Kazharov to contact him again in 2020 if he is still interested in such a visit.

Staff writer John Gravois contributed to this report, which includes material from The Associated Press and The Washington Post.