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A poll worker’s heart attack in Williamson County highlights tensions between officials and poll watchers

The county’s top official said a voter fraud activist was responsible for “almost costing someone their life.” Under pressure from her lawyer, he retracted the statement.

Laura Pressley, a self-styled poll-watching expert and vocal opponent of electronic voting systems, listens to proceedings during a trial on Oct. 10, 2022, disputing the results of a November 2019 election in Gillespie County. (Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune)

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A poll worker in Williamson County had a heart attack Monday while working at an early voting site. County officials initially blamed the medical emergency on a tense interaction with a voter fraud activist and poll watcher, but on Thursday retracted the accusation after the activist threatened legal action.

Williamson County Judge Bill Gravell Jr. had emailed Laura Pressley Monday, claiming her actions at the voting site were responsible for “single-handedly almost costing someone their life.” The email, which was obtained by Votebeat, instructed Pressley to subsequently deal only with him. “Enough with castigating and harassing our county employees and election workers. Let them run the election,” he wrote.

In response, Pressley’s lawyer sent a letter Wednesday to Gravell accusing him of defamation and saying Pressley and her associates weren’t responsible for the poll worker’s heart attack. Rather, the letter said, Pressley and an associate had been speaking to another election worker about election procedures at the time of the incident and drew attention to the poll worker’s medical emergency.

The statements Gravell made, the letter says are “particularly damaging given Dr. Pressley’s extensive and well-known consulting work and advocacy in election integrity matters.”

On Thursday, Gravell apologized and retracted his initial statement in a letter to Pressley’s lawyer, Ana Eby of the Eby Law Firm.

“It is clear there are two sides to every story or situation,” he wrote. Gravell, per Pressley’s lawyer’s request, also agreed to retract his statements publicly and read it during a commissioners court meeting, as well as provide a copy of his letter of retraction to members of the press who request it.

The flurry of statements highlights tensions between partisan poll watchers and election workers, which have escalated as election workers have increasingly contended with baseless accusations of malfeasance and wrongdoing since the 2020 election. Advocates who have been closely tracking such clashes say this incident shows how unmanageable the situation has become.

Pressley has been the subject of other complaints. Some voting rights advocates in Texas say it’s become common over the years to hear complaints about Pressley harassing election workers at polling locations and accusing them of not doing their job properly.

“It’s part of a pattern we’ve seen over the last decade: right-wing groups and people like Laura Pressley really just weaponizing poll watchers in some really alarming ways,” said Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of Common Cause Texas, a nonprofit that advocates for expanding voting rights. “They’re making it harder for people to vote. They’re making it harder for election workers to do their jobs.”

In 2021, a provision of a sweeping new state voting law empowered partisan poll watchers and allowed them “free movement” at polling locations and for every step in the election process. It said election officials accused of obstructing such watchers “in a manner that would make observation not reasonably effective” could face misdemeanor charges.

Williamson County, located north of Austin is home to the Georgetown and Round Rock suburbs. The incident happened in Leander, located just west of Interstate 35. At about 5:45 p.m. Monday, police officers and emergency medical personnel responded to the Leander Public Library after the poll worker had a medical emergency, according to a statement from the county. Other poll workers “acted quickly and immediately began life saving measures,” the statement says. “The poll worker was saved by their efforts as well as by the efforts of first responders.”

The polling location closed early that evening and reopened Tuesday. The polling location’s supervisor, who was there at time of the incident, declined to comment. County officials declined to provide information on the poll worker’s current condition.

Gravell has not responded to requests for an interview, but during a commissioners court meeting Tuesday, Gravell said the poll worker’s heart attack was caused by a “potential confrontation over poll watchers there causing stress in a polling place.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, Gravell said he asked local law enforcement — the county attorney and sheriff along with the Leander Police Department — to look into what happened.

“If all is well, then all is well,” he said.” But if someone has done something inappropriate, and placed someone in harm’s way, potentially they should be held accountable.”

Some poll watchers at the meeting said they were offended by Gravell’s comments.

One, Robert Bagwell, told the commissioners court he was present when the incident happened, but denied speaking to the poll worker or claims that his interactions may have contributed. “I conduct myself professionally everywhere,” Bagwell said. “To say that it was potentially me as a cause for this person’s cardiac arrhythmia… It literally would be as much your fault as mine.”

Gravell had not referred to Bagwell by name during his statements. Bagwell did not respond to a Votebeat’s request for an interview.

“I think it’s very disgusting for you to blame it on poll watchers that give their time, they’re unpaid,” said Lori Gallagher, a Williamson County resident, who has been attending commissioners court meetings since at least 2020 and spreading election conspiracy theories in events hosted by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell.

“I think we’re all wondering if that poll worker was vaccinated,” she said, a reference to false claims that COVID-19 vaccines are not safe.

According to the letter from Pressley’s attorney to Gravell, Pressley and Bagwell had only been at the polling location 15 minutes before the medical emergency happened. Pressley’s and Bagwell’s questions related to election records at the polling location were directed to someone other than the poll worker who was hospitalized, the letter says.

Pressley noticed the poll worker’s medical issue and alerted the polling location supervisor, the letter says.

“The only “action” Dr. Pressley took was to seek help for the alternate clerk,” her lawyer wrote.

Since at least 2014, when she lost a race for the Austin City Council, Pressley has frequently sued counties, election administrators and the Texas secretary of state for not following the Texas Election Code as she interprets it. She rarely succeeds in court.

The Williamson County resident became a self-styled poll watching expert, training hundreds of people across the state. She is a vocal opponent of electronic voting systems and has testified in front of Texas lawmakers saying she believes election administrators are committing “criminal acts.” She has made such claims against election officials in her own county, as well as in Gillespie and Hood counties.

This summer, Pressley disrupted training for election administrators hosted by the Texas secretary of state by interrupting workshops and raising her voice claiming election procedures conflict with the law.

After former Williamson County elections administrator Christopher Davis resigned in August, Pressley, who has never managed an elections department, applied and was interviewed for the job.

The county’s election commission, which is chaired by Gravell and includes both the Republican and Democratic party chairs, the county’s tax assessor-collector, and the county clerk, is responsible for finding a replacement for Davis. Members of the commission did not respond to questions from Votebeat about why Pressley was considered. Connie Odom, the county’s spokesperson, declined to comment because the search for a new election administrator is still ongoing.

Natalia Contreras covers election administration and voting access for Votebeat in partnership with the Texas Tribune. Contact Natalia at ncontreras@votebeat.org

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