Uncounted mail-in ballots discovered in Harris County add uncertainty to two Democratic races

Ballot bags are piled over their corresponding voting machines at the Elections Technology Center in Harris County on election night on March 1, 2022. (Annie Mulligan For The Texas Tribune, Annie Mulligan For The Texas Tribune)

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HOUSTON — Two notable Democratic primary races have gained a new level of uncertainty after Texas’ largest county said it “identified approximately 10,000 mail-in ballots (6,000 Democratic and 4,000 Republican) that were not added into the original Election Night count.”

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Harris County said the weekend after Tuesday’s primary election that the ballots were scanned into its tabulation computer but “were not transferred and counted as a part of the unofficial final results as they should have been.” The results from those ballots will be added to the vote count on Tuesday, the county said.

In the Democratic race for the seat to represent parts of downtown and northeast Houston in the statehouse, incumbent state Rep. Harold V. Dutton Jr. leads challenger Candis Houston by 136 votes, 50.8% to 49.2%.

And the race to determine the Democratic candidate for attorney general of Texas could also be impacted. Rochelle Garza, a former American Civil Liberties Union lawyer from Brownsville, led a crowded primary field and is already locked into the runoff election, but her Democratic opponent could hinge on the Harris County tally.

Former Galveston Mayor Joe Jaworski leads civil rights attorney Lee Merritt by 1,418 votes overall.

Houston, Dutton’s opponent, conceded the race on Thursday in an email to supporters, though The Texas Tribune’s election partner Decision Desk has not called the race. Houston’s campaign did not immediately respond to questions from the Tribune about the discovery of uncounted ballots.

Dutton said he’s skeptical of the situation.

“It seems to me that somebody should’ve known that 10,000 ballots were missing,” Dutton said in an interview Sunday. “If 10,000 ballots were missing and nobody knew that, God help us.”

Dutton said he has not heard from the county and they haven’t returned his phone calls.

The county said in its statement that the error occurred in the hours after election night, between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. Officials are investigating how “the missteps took place in the process.”

“While we understand the seriousness of this error, the ability to identify and correct this issue is a result of a lengthy and rigorous process and is a positive example of the process ultimately working as it should,” the statement said.

Harris County experienced a handful of issues on election day this year. The county, which is more populous than 26 states, took more than a day to report its results in part due to more than 1,600 ballots sheets being damaged. Like many counties, it also reported having a shortage of election workers. And two voting sites in the counties reported minor technical problems with machines.

Dutton’s House District 142 makes up only a portion of Harris County, so not all of the 6,000 votes found will factor into the race. It’s not immediately clear how many votes will be added into the race.

In the attorney general’s race, Jaworski declared victory in getting the second runoff spot on Friday. Merritt, however, has not conceded and Decision Desk has not declared who has secured the second spot.

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