By Michael Shields and Corrie MacLaggan
VIENNA/AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - International election monitors took a dim view on Wednesday of Texas' threat to prosecute them if they observe voting in the state a bit too closely on November 6.
The exchange pitted the Vienna-based human rights watchdog Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe against Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who warned the OSCE not to interfere with polling in state elections.
"The threat of criminal sanctions against OSCE/ODIHR observers is unacceptable," Janez Lenarcic, director of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) monitoring arm, said in a statement.
"The United States, like all countries in the OSCE, has an obligation to invite ODIHR observers to observe its elections."
Abbott told Reuters on Wednesday that he is considering legal action against the group if it doesn't concede that it will follow the state's laws.
"They act like they may not be subject to Texas law and our goal all along is to make clear to them that when they're in Texas, they're subject to Texas law, and we're not giving them an exemption," he said.
Abbott is skeptical about why the group wants to look at elections in Texas.
"Our concern is that this isn't some benign observation but something intended to be far more prying and maybe even an attempt to suppress voter integrity," he said.
In a letter on Tuesday to the Warsaw-based ODIHR, Abbott had noted that OSCE representatives were not authorized by Texas law to enter a polling place.
"It may be a criminal offense for OSCE's representatives to maintain a presence within 100 feet of a polling place's entrance. Failure to comply with these requirements could subject the OSCE's representatives to criminal prosecution for violating state law," he added.
He cited reports that OSCE monitors had met with organizations challenging voter identification laws. Texas' voter ID law was blocked earlier this year by a federal court, and Abbott has said he will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"The OSCE may be entitled to its opinions about Voter ID laws, but your opinion is legally irrelevant in the United States, where the Supreme Court has already determined that Voter ID laws are constitutional," Abbott wrote.
Texas Secretary of State Hope Andrade also wrote to the United Nations-affiliated OSCE/ODIHR on Tuesday, saying that it's key for Texans to understand that the organization has no jurisdiction over the state.
Republican Texas Governor Rick Perry tweeted on Tuesday: "No UN monitors/inspectors will be part of any TX election process; I commend @TXsecofstate for swift action to clarify issue."
The 56-member OSCE routinely sends monitors to elections and noted November's elections would be the sixth U.S. vote that ODIHR has observed "without incident" since 2002.
For next month's elections it has a core team of 13 experts from 10 OSCE countries based in Washington and 44 long-term observers deployed across the country, it said.
Lenarcic had shared his "grave concern" about the threat of Texas prosecutions with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the OSCE said.
"Our observers are required to remain strictly impartial and not to intervene in the voting process in any way," Lenarcic said. "They are in the United States to observe these elections, not to interfere in them."
(Reporting By Michael Shields and Corrie MacLaggan; Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols and Jim Forsyth)