Tarrant County faces delayed counts for its tightest races due to staffing shortages

Voters cast their ballots at Audelia Road Branch Library on the first day of early voting in Dallas on Oct. 13, 2020. In the nearby Tarrant County, county officials worry there could be delayed counts due to staffing shortages. (Credit: Montinique Monroe for The Texas Tribune)

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Tarrant County officials are warning that coronavirus-related staffing shortages mean elections workers are unlikely to finish counting mail-in ballots on Tuesday night, potentially leaving the county’s tightest races undecided until later this week.

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On Monday, Tarrant County scrambled to add 56 more ballot board members to work around the clock in what is the most competitive election up-and-down the ballot in the county in years. Tarrant County, the largest Republican-controlled county in the state, is home to a number of state legislative races and at least one congressional race that are expected to be tight.

The mad dash comes after local officials realized this weekend that the staffing shortage could delay more than 4,500 mail-in ballots the county has already received but has not yet processed. As of Saturday, the county was still awaiting some 23,000 other absentee ballots to be returned.

Election officials stressed that all ballots would be counted. Once the election ends, the county has two weeks to finish counting.

About one-third of mail-in ballots in Tarrant County have been rejected by scanners because of defects, forcing workers to manually duplicate thousands of ballots, a tedious task in normal times. As of Saturday, the county had already received more than 66,000 mail-in ballots, trouncing its 2016 and 2018 mail-in turnout, when under 40,000 people voted absentee.

Officials said many of the dozens of mostly older workers didn’t want to go into the election centers out of fear of catching the coronavirus, which led to shortages this past weekend. While none of the workers have tested positive for COVID-19, one ballot worker was exposed and is now quarantining. With fewer staff in recent days, shifts were extended from eight hours to 12 hours. Some shifts over the weekend went unfilled, bringing the situation to a head Saturday night, when County Judge Glen Whitley asked parties to find additional workers to process the ballots.

While both parties and the county government say they hope winners will be declared Tuesday night, Whitley was more cautious.

“The integrity of the ballot is the first priority,” Whitley said. “Fast is the last thing. If we don’t have it done [Election night], it’ll certainly be sometime Wednesday, could be Thursday or Friday.”

Tarrant County Elections Administrator Heider Garcia was not available for comment.

Deborah Peoples, the chair of the Tarrant County Democratic Party, said while there are always some delays until the voting tally is finalized, it is “usually not to this extent.”

“We are trying to get through this process,” Peoples said, adding that she was pleased the two parties and the county could troubleshoot the possible delay together.

To ensure mail-in ballots are processed securely, two members from differing parties on Tarrant County’s ballot board review each mail-in vote.

Both Peoples and Rick Barnes, the chair of the Tarrant Republican County, rushed to train those workers Monday after an emergency meeting Monday morning.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday took notice of the staffing concerns and called on Tarrant County Republicans to volunteer as poll watchers and poll workers.

“We must ensure that the election process remains transparent,” he said in a statement. “We will ensure ballots are properly counted in Tarrant County and that the election process receives the thorough security and integrity we deserve.”

According to Whitley, just 99 of the more 60,000 mail-in votes cast so far have been thrown out for signatures on mail-in ballots not matching signatures on record.

Barnes said he’s holding out hope that key elections will still be able to be called on Tuesday night.

“There are two things that are of the utmost importance to us,” Barnes said. “One is the integrity of the ballot, but then the other is that we are able to announce decisions tomorrow night at the end of the voting process.”

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