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Texas House Passes Bill to Allow Election Workers to Carry Guns at Polling Sites

Voting rights advocates say the bill would only serve to intimidate voters and encourage vigilantism.

Voters wait in line outside of a polling place in Houston, Texas on March 1, 2022.

On Friday, lawmakers in the Texas House passed a bill that would allow certain election workers to carry handguns in a proposal that voting rights advocates say would decrease voter participation and create an atmosphere of intimidation at polling sites.

The Republican-sponsored bill would allow election judges, or the presiding officer at a polling place, and some poll workers to carry handguns at polling sites on Election Day and during early voting. The bill, H.B. 636, passed 95 to 50 on Friday, with several Democrats joining Republicans in voting “yes.”

The proposal now heads to the state Senate, where its fate is unclear. The Texas house passed a similar bill in 2021, but it died in the Senate, per the Dallas Morning News.

The proposal appears to have at least partial support from far right Gov. Greg Abbott’s administration, however. In 2018, Abbott’s attorney general, Ken Paxton, issued an opinion saying that election judges with handgun licenses could carry guns at polling places as long as the site in question wasn’t a place where guns are forbidden, like government buildings or schools.

Voting rights advocates have said that Paxton’s interpretation of the law is dubious at best, and flies in the face of existing Texas law that bans firearms at polling sites. H.B. 636 would enshrine Paxton’s opinion into law.

The Brennan Center for Justice and Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence sent a letter to the House last week urging lawmakers to reject the bill, saying that it would especially drive Black and Latinx voters, whose voting rights are already disproportionately infringed upon, away from the polls. As a result, the proposal would allow Republicans to further their goal of suppressing voters, especially in blue-leaning areas.

The letter says that allowing guns in polling places would encourage “vigilantism,” as the current right-wing extremism around elections has already created alarming dangerous conditions around polling places, as in the midterm election last year when armed vigilantes intimidated voters outside of a polling place in Maricopa County, Arizona.

“False allegations of election fraud by politicians and others have dramatically raised tensions at the polls and our nation witnessed armed individuals patrolling ballot boxes in Arizona during the 2022 midterm elections,” the groups said. “Allowing non-law enforcement or licensed security to bring guns into this mix creates conditions ripe for violence.”

“This is undoubtedly a step in the wrong direction,” the letter continued. “All eligible Texans should be able to vote safely and without intimidation. H.B. 636 will undermine that promise.”

The bill’s passage came just two days before a mass shooting in Allen, Texas, in which a 33-year-old man who had posted white supremacist and neo-Nazi views online opened fire in a mall and killed eight people, and just two weeks before the first anniversary of the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

The Allen shooting has sparked calls for new legislation to address gun violence and rein in the prevalence of guns across the country. In recent years, gun violence has soared to new heights; 2023 is already on pace to break the all-time record for the number of mass shootings in a year in the U.S. At the same time, conservatives — often in direct response to a horrific shooting — have been loosening gun laws at a rapid pace, one that experts say is faster than ever before.

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