Texas has become a hotbed of anti-democracy and anti-civil rights activity pursued by a spectrum of far-right and extremist activists. Groups and individuals are inserting themselves into electoral management and disrupting civic activities such as school board meetings, attacking voting procedures, electoral infrastructure and staff, and propagandizing that elections have and will be rigged. Culture war battles over pandemic measures and the teaching of CRT, or critical race theory, in public schools have been fierce, with right-wing conservatives attacking teachers and principals who support discussion of America’s racist history (CRT is in fact only taught at the university level). Some school board members are facing death threats in districts where these fights have broken out and some school officials have been forced out or quit. Election administrators have also been under threat. For instance, an election administrator from Tarrant County told a U.S. House Committee that there were calls on social media to “hang him when convicted for fraud.” His home address was leaked and he also received messages threatening his children. These threats and intimidation come from so-called “election integrity” groups as well as overt white supremacists, like Texas Proud Boys members who have disrupted everything from women’s march protests, campaign events, state political conventions, school board meetings, and LGBTQ+ events. Their Telegram channel, “Official Southeast Texas Proud Boys,” is filled with information about CRT and elections, with a May post celebrating that “school board candidates opposed to CRT and mask mandates” swept elections across Texas. The group contends that the 2020 election was a “coup.”
Read more about the Texas groups working to undermine democracy.
Many of the groups falsely pushing the idea that elections are manipulated are also driven by Christian nationalist beliefs and have particular disdain for the LGBTQ+ community. Other conservative groups have worked together with far-right extremists, including the Proud Boys, to intimidate candidates and spread election disinformation. Proud Boys have engaged in protests against candidates they disfavor. And they’ve written on Telegram that election audits that they wrongly assumed would show massive fraud would provide the “opportunity to blackpill [a white supremacist term for recruitment] massive swaths of the White population” into believing elections are fraudulent. In 2020, the group suggested its members serve as poll watchers; it remains to be seen if they will openly do the same for the upcoming midterms, though it is clear from the number of Telegram posts about supposed election shenanigans that the group is closely monitoring these events. Texas also has a large contingent of candidates for office who push the “Big Lie” (former President Donald Trump’s repeated and false allegation that the 2020 election was stolen from him), advance voter suppression legislation, and engage in racist and other bigoted forms of expression. Many are fervent supporters of Trump.
The threats and lies about so-called voter-fraud these groups are pushing have prompted some election officials to quit. In Gillespie County, Texas, the county’s entire three-person election department resigned due to threats and misinformation.
See Texas Groups Working to Undermine Democracy.
Texas Republican Party
The Texas Republican Party explicitly engages in election denialism and anti-civil rights positions, which are laid out in the Texas Republican Party’s 2022 platform. The party’s top priority is “election integrity,” a euphemism for the idea that up until now elections have not been free and fair, and it voted to reject the results of the 2020 election. The party’s resolution says, “We believe that the 2020 election violated Article 1 and 2 of the U.S. Constitution, that various secretaries of state illegally circumvented their state legislatures in conducting their elections in multiple ways, including by allowing ballots to be received after November 3, 2020…We reject the certified results of the 2020 Presidential election.” The platform calls for harsh, vote suppression measures in regards to elections, including the repeal of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and a call for a “state-level electoral college,” effectively eliminating one person-one vote.
The platform is filled with other extremist positions. It asserts that Texas retains the right to secede. It calls for the restoration of confederate monuments that have been taken down and the repeal of hate crime laws. The platform is filled with culture war attacks, such as being explicitly anti-LGBTQ+, deeming homosexuality “an abnormal lifestyle choice” and opposing same-sex marriage. It advocates school choice and rejects “critical race theory” and gun-free zones. It also calls for the abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency and an end to carbon restrictions and similar climate-friendly policies. And, of course, it supports a total ban on and criminalization of abortion. Trump praised the party’s platform.
The Texas GOP has long had radical platforms. In the past, extremist positions were of less concern, as they had little impact on actual legislation and peoples’ rights. But now, voting rights restrictions have passed. As a result of the passage of Texas’s new law on voting, Senate Bill 1, in the 2022 primaries county-level rejection rates of mail-in ballots ranged from six to 22 percent, up from about one percent. An AP analysis showed a rate of rejection almost twice as high in historically Democratic-voting counties versus Republican counties, an unsurprising result as voters of color typically bear the biggest burden from any restrictions on voting, and they make up a large share in many Democratic-leaning counties.
In recent months, some GOP county-level groups have spoken non-stop about “election integrity” and a possible rigging of future elections. Right-wing conservative allies that also spread the lie that the elections have been rigged have been holding “election integrity” sessions with county election administrators across the state, training poll workers, and warning of voter fraud. There is no evidence of widespread fraud or rigging of elections, even from groups that have held election audits. But these activities sow fear and mobilize the far right.
The battle over election administration has been fierce in North Texas. In Hood County, Michele Carew, a former elections administrator who was pushed out in 2021 even though Trump received more than 80 percent of the vote in the county, challenged Hood County Clerk Katie Lang in the Republican primary. Lang, a “Stop the Steal” activist who has amplified baseless claims of widespread voter fraud joined conservative activists, in charging that Carew was not sufficiently committed to cracking down on voter fraud and auditing elections.
While the county clerk in Hood County does not run elections, they help decide who the appointed administrator is, and Carew made a direct appeal against ‘Big Lie’ politics, warning that her experience was shared by many other elections administrators who also felt harassed and endangered. Regardless, Lang easily prevailed, with 60 percent of the primary vote.
Right-wing conservative politicians and advocates have called for “audits” of the 2020 election, a means to further undermine the legitimacy of election results. In September 2021, months after the 2020 election, the Texas secretary of state’s office announced an audit, just hours after Trump asked for one. Defending the audit decision, Governor Greg Abbott told Fox News, “We have a responsibility to ensure the integrity and confidence in the elections in the state of Texas.” Costing four million dollars, the audit focused on four populous counties, two that lean Democratic and two that lean Republican. The “largest” discrepancy was found in Republican-leaning Collin County, where a difference of 17 votes between manual and electronic counts was found. Likely because the audit revealed an accurate vote count, contrary to repeated Republican claims of vote rigging, Texas officials released the results on New Year’s Eve, effectively burying them. This was the second fiasco at trying to prove voter fraud after millions of dollars had already been spent by the secretary of state’s office to find nonexistent voter fraud in 2020.
This hasn’t stopped right-wing conservative activists from continuing to insist audits are necessary and Texas elections are suspect. In July 2022, the conservative Tarrant County Citizens for Election Integrity began reviewing by hand 300,000 ballots from that county. The group alleges a range of fraudulent activities happening across the state related to the 2020 November general election in Tarrant and other counties but has offered no evidence to support the allegations. Because the review must be overseen by county election staff, Tarrant County taxpayers will be responsible for the extra resources needed to make sure the ballots are handled appropriately. Other Texas counties have received similar requests to review ballots. Actions by groups like this further spread the false idea that the 2020 election lacked integrity, undermining people’s faith in democratic processes.
These activities are confined to the far right and parts of the Republican Party. Democratic officials have not engaged in pushing the “Big Lie” or other actions questioning the idea that Texas has free and fair voting systems, though the party believes that recent voting restrictions will suppress the vote. The Democratic party, both at the state level and the county level, does engage in get out the vote campaigns and voter education efforts, but they are not aimed at undermining the public’s confidence in the system. The party also has a program for election workers and attempts to attract more to serve. It has also fought against legislation that will restrict the vote, such as Senate Bill 1, which passed after an effort by Democrats to leave the state and thus thwart a quorum that was needed for a vote on the bill.
Extremists take up the “Big Lie”
Meanwhile, extremist organizations holding white supremacist or rabid antigovernment beliefs have become closer to key GOP figures in the state. For example, the militia group, Oath Keepers, whose leader and some members have been indicted for seditious conspiracy related to January 6, provided security to Trump campaign rallies and events in Texas. Allen West, chair of the Texas Republican Party until July 2021, offered an oath to “swear in” militia members at a “Stop the Steal” rally in November 2020. He also posed with armed militia members just days after the January 6 insurrection and appeared alongside other Republican state politicians at a March 2021 rally with the leader of the Oath Keepers. Oath Keepers leader, Stewart Rhodes, was already under investigation for his involvement in the January 6 attack. White supremacists have also been active in Texas politics. Proud Boys attended the GOP convention and accosted Rep. Dan Crenshaw and his staff, calling him a “traitor” and mocking his eye patch, which covers a combat injury.
At the August 2022 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) convention held in Dallas, attendees repeated the ‘Big Lie’ propaganda. The event featured a bizarre “performance art” piece consisting of a jail cell and an actor playing the part of a January 6 insurrectionist. A sign attached to the cell read “#younext.” The installation painted a sympathetic portrait of the arrested rioters, who were depicted as simply protesting Trump’s unfair defeat in a clearly rigged election. At CPAC, Trump repeated the falsehood that the 2020 election was stolen from him. Former Trump advisor Steve Bannon was more militant, using violent language. “We are at war,” Bannon told the crowd. “We are in a political and ideological war,” insisting that President Joe Biden is an “illegitimate imposter.” Calling on Republicans to send “shock troops” to Washington, Bannon told the audience they had an opportunity to “shatter the Democratic party as a national political institution.” The event also featured a speech by Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, who has transformed his country into a far-right, illiberal democracy and who appeared at the convention a week after saying that Europeans “do not want to become peoples of mixed race.” Orban received resounding applause from the attendees.
In this environment, perhaps it is no surprise that campaign events have become threatening. In Hemphill, Texas, a man armed with an AR-15 attended a town hall held by Beto O’Rourke and challenged him on his abortion stance saying “there are great men of God who are products of rape.” And another O’Rourke event in Port Arthur was protested by members of the white supremacist Proud Boys. One Proud Boy was holding a sign that said “Proud Boys are Everywhere” and featured the image of an eye. They yelled at people who were headed into the event.
There have also been shadowy attempts to intimidate voters. In July, the Harris County Elections Office warned voters about a possible illegal effort to garner private voter information. At least one county commissioner said a group approached residents living in Sunnyside, a majority Black and Latino community, to get their information. Sunnyside residents were surprised when they learned that people could be impersonating election workers, going door-to-door in an attempt to obtain private voter information and asking residents to sign affidavits regarding their voter status. Two men, according to doorbell camera video footage recorded by a Sunnyside resident, wore badges identifying themselves as representing the Texas Election Network, a conservative grass-roots organization formed in 2021. “It’s surprising and worrying that individuals would be in any way misleading voters into thinking that they were from the election’s office and seeking personal information,” Beth Stevens, the interim elections administrator for Harris County said. An investigation has been launched into possible criminal violations.
Running for office on the “Big Lie”
The results of the Texas primaries showed that Texas GOP politics is fueled by the force of Trump’s ‘Big Lie,’ according to an analysis by The Washington Post. At least 27 Texas Republican candidates now vying for statewide and federal office continue to repeat Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was fraudulent. Texas has more current nominees for U.S. House seats, 24, who claim the election was stolen than any other state. Six more nominees who haven’t specifically said the 2020 race was rigged, are nonetheless running on platforms that call for the tightening of voting rules despite a lack of evidence of widespread fraud. The Post’s analysis cautions that many of the GOP election deniers now running for office are “overt in their intention” to enact policies, if elected, that will make possible the changing of the outcome of future political contests.
Communities under threat
Meanwhile, in the streets, far-right extremists have worked together with right-wing conservative groups that push lies about elections to defame vulnerable communities, in particular LGBTQ+ people. On July 10, 2022 a typical example occurred in Houston. That day, members of the white supremacist Proud Boys joined the Texas chapter of the anti-LGBTQ+ hate group Mass Resistance, “Big Lie” advocates Protect Texas Kids, and the Young Conservatives of Texas, as well as several people who self-identified as Nazis, in a protest outside a drag brunch at a pro-LGBTQ+ restaurant. Many of these same people had protested Representative Dan Crenshaw at the GOP convention. Kelly Neidert, head of Protect Texas Kids, organized the event, saying, “We’re out here today…because they’re allowing kids into all their weekend drag shows.” Neidert’s group believes and spreads the lie that the LGBTQ+ community—and drag performers especially—aim to indoctrinate young kids into liberalism and coerce them into sexual activity with pedophilic adults using LGBTQ+ identity as cover.
This protest is part of a larger trend in which far-right groups have increased anti-LGBTQ+ mobilization, including targeting events involving drag performers. In June, another protest featuring Proud Boys targeted an adults-only Arlington, Texas drag show. The protest was characterized by threats of violence. In the bodycam footage, an unidentified man yelled at an individual off-camera about how he was “not afraid” of being jailed because he’d been before and would “happily” be incarcerated again. The man then threatens attendees of the brunch, calling one person a “pedophile f***ot” and saying he wanted to “beat their ass.” At a June demonstration outside a Pride-themed story time at a McKinney, Texas library, one man reportedly “openly carried a pistol on his hip, while members of the Proud Boys wore tactical gear and carried bear mace.”
This mix of conservative activists, elected officials, and far-right extremists like the Proud Boys who are now allied in attacking the LGBTQ+ community has been devastating. In 2021, state legislators proposed more anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in one year than any other state ever had, with more than half of those bills focused on restricting rights for transgender people. Gov. Abbott told reporters this year that he saw targeting transgender youth and their families as a “75, 80 percent winner” for the governor’s reelection campaign.