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Texas threatens prosecution against international poll watchers

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July 25, 2011: Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott talks with the media as he leaves the Tom Green County Courthouse, in San Angelo, Texas. (AP)

Texas has a message for international election observers planning to watch over the Lone Star vote Nov. 6: "BRING IT." 

Texas officials this week launched a prickly and very public dispute with the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe, which plans to send monitors to polling sites across the U.S. on Election Day. The group has done this since 2002 -- but this year, Texas took exception to what officials perceived as a challenge to the latest wave of voter ID laws. 

Attorney General Greg Abbott is now threatening to prosecute any observer who breaks state law by getting too close to any polling site. 

"The OSCE may be entitled to its opinions about Voter ID laws, but your opinion is legally irrelevant in the United States," Abbott wrote in a letter this week to the OSCE. 

He went on to remind representatives that they are not allowed to enter a polling place, and cautioned against going within 100 feet of the entrance. "Failure to comply with these requirements could subject the OSCE's representatives to criminal prosecution for violating state law," he wrote. 

The letter touched off a flurry of testy tweets and correspondence that brought in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to play ref. Janez Lenarcic, director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, fired off a letter to Clinton to complain -- which was followed by a letter from Abbott to Clinton reiterating his concerns. 

"The threat of criminal sanctions against OSCE/ODIHR observers is unacceptable," Lenarcic said in a statement. "The United States, like all countries in the OSCE, has an obligation to invite ODIHR observers to observe its elections." 

The United States is one of dozens of members of the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe.   

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland on Thursday acknowledged Clinton had received letters from both sides and tried to offer assurances.

She said the plan to send observers "isn't any different" than in past years. 

"We had, I think, about 15 states that they were going to go to," she said. "To my knowledge, (Texas is) the only state that came forward and said please reassure us that you're going to follow our state electoral law. And they have now been reassured." 

On Twitter, Abbott didn't sound reassured. 

He tweeted: "UN-related vote monitors warn Texas: Don't mess with us. My response: BRING IT." 

Gov. Rick Perry also chimed in, saying "No UN monitors/inspectors will be part of any TX election process." 

Perry praised a statement from Texas Secretary of State Hope Andrade addressing both sides. She said in a letter to the OSCE that she was concerned the monitoring program could be "politicized in a manner that could diminish or permanently damage" its credibility. She also said it's important for Texans to understand the group has no jurisdiction over state elections and is only there to learn. 

Abbott had expressed concern that OSCE met with groups that have filed suit against voter laws in Texas -- including the ACORN-tied Project Vote. A number of left-leaning groups have challenged efforts to enact strict photo ID laws in Texas and other Republican-controlled states, claiming they're an effort to disenfranchise minority voters. Republican lawmakers say they're merely aimed at cracking down on voter fraud. 

The Texas law is not yet in effect, having been blocked by a federal court. Abbott has taken his case to the Supreme Court. 

The OSCE referenced such laws in an Oct. 19 report, saying "recent state-level legislative initiatives to limit early voting and introduce stricter voter identification have become highly polarized. Democrats are concerned that these would disenfranchise eligible voters, while Republicans believe they are necessary to protect the integrity of the vote."

South Carolina Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said Friday that the OSCE observers are also expected to come to his state, where officials have pushed a similar voter ID law that is not yet in effect. But Whitmire said South Carolina does not share Texas' concerns. 

"Whoever wants to come observe South Carolina elections, we welcome them," he told FoxNews.com. "We want our election to be as open as possible."