AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Don't mess with Texas elections. That's the double-down message Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott delivered Thursday to international poll watchers who plan to come and observe voting on Election Day, tweeting "BRING IT" after the group took offense at being threatened with criminal charges from the state's top prosecutor.
Abbott, a Republican with a tea party bent who has the "Don't Tread on Me" logo on his Twitter page, drew a highly publicized line in the sand this week with a letter to the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe.
OSCE observers generally are members of parliament from organization members, which include the United States and 55 countries in Europe and Central Asia. The group has sent observers to poll locations across the U.S. since 2002.
Abbott, citing what he said were reports that OSCE had met with groups that oppose voter ID laws like those Texas has unsuccessfully tried implementing, expressed uncertainty about OSCE's intentions. He reminded them to obey state laws that prohibit political campaign workers and loiterers from coming within 100 feet of a polling location entrance — or potentially face prosecution.
OSCE Ambassador Janez Lenarcic said concerns that its election observers intended to influence or interfere with the election process were groundless. He called the threat of prosecution "unacceptable."
The U.S. State Department was dragged into the fray Thursday, telling reporters in Washington that Texas officials had been reassured OSCE would comply with state laws. The department added that the elections observers are afforded diplomatic immunity.
"In general we give them protected status, as we expect of our people when we participate in OSCE delegations," department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
But hours after that briefing, Abbott released a letter sent to the department saying his office still had not been sufficiently assured.
"If they refuse to do so, OSCE's representatives may be subject to legal consequences associated with any violations of state law," Abbott said.
Violating the 100-foot rule is a Class C misdemeanor in Texas.
Gov. Rick Perry has thrown his support behind his top prosecutor, tweeting, "No UN monitors/inspectors will be part of any TX election process." OSCE is not an arm of the United Nations.
The flap is just the latest fight Abbott is taking beyond Texas. His office has filed two dozen lawsuits against the federal government since President Barack Obama took office, many of which have resulted in defeat.
Those include the state's defense of a voter ID law passed last year by Republican-controlled Texas Legislature but struck down a federal court in Washington before it could be implemented this Election Day. Abbott has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
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." Abbott reiterated those concerns in his letter Thursday to the State Department.
"The OSCE may be entitled to its opinions about Voter ID laws, but your opinion is legally irrelevant in the United States," Abbott said.
An email seeking comment about OSCE's position on voter ID laws was sent late Thursday to a group spokesman in Europe. A phone call to a Washington-based number on the group's website went to a voicemail box that had not been activated.
An Oct. 19 report outlining the group's plans to observe the Nov. 6 election notes that efforts to implement stricter voter ID laws in U.S. states "have become highly polarized." The report goes on to say that "Democrats are concerned that these would disenfranchise eligible voters, while Republicans believe they are necessary to protect the integrity of the vote." The report does not express an opinion about the merits of the laws.
Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, said she was unaware of any other state that had expressed concerns about the OSCE poll observers.
"To my knowledge it's the only state that came forward and said, 'Please reassure us, that you're gonna follow our state electoral law,'" she said Thursday. "And they have now been reassured."
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.
Follow Paul J. Weber on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pauljweber
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