On Wednesday, Gov. Greg Abbott attempted to justify his decision to deploy Texas Army National Guard troops to Houston, Austin, Dallas and Fort Worth ahead of Election Day next week by citing fears of post-election riots in the streets of Texas, and promised that troops would stay clear of polling places in response to concerns from Democrats that the move could be intended to suppress voter turnout.
“Our job is to make sure that cities are going to be safe, and along those lines, we want to make sure that in the event that there are any protests after the elections are concluded that we’ll have adequate personnel in place in case to make sure that we will be able to address any protests that could turn into riots,” Abbott said.
He made the remarks during a local press conference at the Houston Police Officers' Union headquarters, flanked by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Sen. John Cornyn, in a photo-op to signal state Republicans’ support for law enforcement ahead of the election.
Abbott said that National Guard troops “will play no role whatsoever in the election process,” and said that soldiers “will not be at polls or anything like that.”
He also claimed “it’s erroneous” to say that there will definitely be National Guard troops on the streets in Houston after the election, despite his deployment order. “Those decisions will be made on an as-needed basis,” Abbott said.
First reported by the San Antonio Express-News , the state National Guard revealed on Monday that Abbott had ordered up to 1,000 troops to be spread across Houston, Dallas, Austin and Fort Worth to provide “post election” assistance to the Texas Department of Public Safety and local police “to deter any civil disturbance at sites in various cities within Texas,” said state National Guard Major General James Brown.
San Antonio was originally one of the cities where troops would be deployed, but was removed from Abbott’s list by Wednesday morning, according to the Express-News.
Rice University political science professor Mark Jones said that this type of military deployment ahead of an election is entirely unprecedented in the United States and seems more like something out of the politically unstable countries in Latin America and Africa that he studies.
“It’d be more something that you’d be used to seeing in Kenya, or in Honduras or Bolivia, not in the United States,” Jones said.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s office declined to comment on Abbott’s decision to send soldiers to Houston, but a spokesperson confirmed that Harris County officials had not been contacted by the governor about the troop deployment as of early Wednesday.
A representative of the Houston mayor's office also said Sylvester Turner had not been contacted ahead of time by anyone about the deployment of National Guard troops in the city.
“As of this morning, Mayor Turner has not been contacted by the governor’s office or the Texas National Guard,” said Mary Benton, the mayor’s director of communications, in a statement to the Houston Press Wednesday morning. “The mayor has not made any requests to bring the guard to Houston for Election Day.”
Benton also sent along a link to a Monday tweet from Texas Army National Guard commander Adjutant General Tracy Norris about the deployment.
“The Texas National Guard continues to support DPS guarding historical landmarks such as the Alamo and the State Capitol. To be clear, there has been no request nor plan to provide any type of support at any polling location in Texas,” Norris’s tweet read.
Jones said that while he’s not sure what Abbott’s true rationale is here, there are two ways to look at his decision.
“If you’re going to look at it in a negative light, it’s that Abbott is trying to send a signal to Republican voters that the sanctity of elections is under threat, and that he’s working to protect the process,” Jones said, in an attempt to rile-up conservatives to turn out to the polls to help vulnerable Republicans on the ballot “so they aren’t cheated out of their rightful victory.”
However, Jones said it could be true that Abbott’s National Guard deployment is intended to preempt big protests in the wake of a potential Donald Trump victory — or if Trump refuses to concede — that could come along with credible accusations of voter suppression against Democrats across the country, and that Houston was chosen as a city where troops would be sent due to the large civil rights protests we saw over the summer in the wake of George Floyd’s killing.
But if that’s truly Abbott’s goal in ordering these deployments, it doesn’t make much sense to do so without notifying local elected officials or law enforcement leaders like Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo or Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, Jones said.
“I would have more faith in that argument if there’d been coordination with local law enforcement, with Art Acevedo or Ed Gonzalez in Houston, and there doesn’t appear to have been any coordination,” said Jones. “If the goal is to be prepared for the event of post-election violence, it would seem to me that you would want to coordinate that response with local law enforcement, and not have the National Guard simply acting on its own.”
“The negative way to view it is that it’s political theater designed to boost Republican turnout, and the positive way would be that it’s a prudent move in a very unsettled time when, unfortunately in the United States, we can’t rule out post election violence,” Jones said.
It’s all another example of just how hard the Trump presidency has shaken the snow globe of American public life.
“Even after 2000 with the tight election and uncertainty surrounding George W. Bush’s election against Al Gore, there was no fear of violence and violent protests,” said Jones. “I think today, after four years of Donald Trump, that’s no longer the case.”
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