Partisan spats over vote counting mean Harris County’s election results will likely be late again

A Harris County election worker wheeled in materials containing ballot data at the NRG Arena in Houston on Nov. 3, 2020. (Pu Ying Huang For The Texas Tribune, Pu Ying Huang For The Texas Tribune)

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A pioneering elections office, contrary guidance from the state and partisan discord are once again jumbling the complex task of counting votes in Harris County, making it more likely that the state’s largest county will again run late reporting its results from Tuesday’s primary runoff.

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The county is known for its lengthy election night vigils — a product, in part, of its large geographical footprint. Because Texas law forbids voting results from being transmitted electronically, counts must be driven from hundreds of polling places to a central counting center at the end of the night.

Harris County elections officials had hoped to speed up the process Tuesday by deputizing law enforcement officials and full-time county employees to pick up ballots from voting sites rather than waiting for election judges to deliver them.

Harris used the approach for a May 7 municipal election without protest, though the Houston Chronicle reported it didn’t appear to help reduce final reporting times.

But last week, the Harris County GOP indicated it would opt out of the pickups and instructed Republican election judges to deliver ballots and voting materials themselves. Party officials said the county’s plan will “destroy chain of custody” of voted ballots and argued it violates state law. That echoes a determination by the Texas secretary of state’s office that election judges must deliver the results to the county.

Now, more than 40 Republican judges are breaking with their party and opting back into the delivery program, which the county continues to defend as lawful. Preparing to process a higher volume of drop-offs, the county scrambled to move its headquarters from its warehouse to the NRG Arena.

“A change this significant and this late in the game throws chaos into a carefully-orchestrated system and seriously threatens our ability to process results,” Isabel Longoria, Harris County’s election administrator, said in a Friday statement. She warned that the series of events would lead to a slower count Tuesday.

Counting votes in Texas’ largest counties is more art than science.

At the end of voting — assuming voting doesn’t run past 7 p.m. though it often does — election workers must follow county and state protocols to close down polling places, collecting ballot boxes, voting rosters and other materials. The presiding election judge from each location must then ferry some of those materials, including returns and voted ballots, to a central counting station to be checked in and processed.

In places like Harris County, the votes must be transported across the county’s nearly 2,000 square miles back to election headquarters; the drive from some polling places into the central count can take at least 40 minutes.

Under the county’s plan, county law enforcement and county workers will instead meet the Democratic election judges and Republicans who have agreed to participate at their polling places, with some picking up materials from two sites to reduce the number of vehicles ultimately arriving at central count.

That approach has been used at the end of early voting. The Texas Election Code specifies that an “election officer or designated law enforcement” can make the delivery. The code does not speak to that delivery on election night other than to say the election judge must turn over those election records to the county, Longoria told state lawmakers at a May 11 hearing of the House Elections Committee.

However, Keith Ingram — the state’s director of elections — told state lawmakers he doesn’t agree that the county’s plan is legal, and that delivery falls to election judges.

State law allows counties to set up regional drop-off locations to more quickly transmit a copy of the vote tallies to the central count. Harris County election officials said their approach complied with state law because it is “mimicking” the regional drop-off locations by “taking the drop off locations” to the judges, transferring the election records at the polling place without having to make election judges drive in to central count after a 15-hour day.

But Ingram said the regional drop-offs are not the same as picking up the results from the presiding judge at a polling place.

“There’s nothing in the code that allows them the extension to that point,” he said.

The secretary of state’s disapproval — stated just a few days before the start of early voting — came as a surprise to county officials who said they had discussed their plan with an attorney from the state’s elections division by phone ahead of the May 7 election. The attorney raised “no concerns, legal or otherwise,” with the program, county officials said.

A spokesperson for the secretary of state’s office said the office didn’t receive any sort of communication. The spokesperson said the state learned of Harris County’s delivery plan through a press release a few days before the May 7 election, though the state doesn’t appear to have objected.

Harris County GOP officials said they communicated their chain-of-custody concerns to the county the day of the hearing, following up with a statement a week later instructing Republican judges to not participate.

“In violation of … the election code, on the night of May 24, Isabel Longoria intends to again send unauthorized temporary employees to election day polling places to retrieve ballots, election equipment and other election records,” Alan Vera, an official with the local party, said in a Monday statement. “Because the Harris County Republican Party refuses to participate in her illegal action, Longoria has ‘pre-blamed’ Republicans for the election counting delays Longoria will again deliver for the primary runoff election.”

County officials chided the party for waiting until days before the election to raise concerns about a plan the county made them aware of in early April.

In a statement Monday, the state continued to urge the county and local parties “to come to an agreement that is consistent with the Texas Election Code,” describing the county’s plan as “incompatible” with state law and an effort that “violates well-established chain of custody protocols.”

The last few election cycles in Harris County have played out amid political wrangling over election administration. The Harris County GOP has been at loggerheads with the county’s Democratic leadership since losing political control of the county and the county clerk’s office, which oversaw elections until the recent creation of an elections administrator office.

That has included partisan battles over voting initiatives like drive-thru voting during the pandemic and a move to countywide voting that frees voters from precinct-based polling places and allows voters to cast ballots at any polling place in the county on election day.

Under both Republican and Democratic administrations, Harris County — more populous than 26 states — has long been known for slow reporting of election results. But the county vote tallying has come under increasing scrutiny amid broader efforts to undermine public confidence in elections.

The counting issues, however, are separate from Harris County’s recent blunders — namely the 10,000 mail-in votes it mistakenly left off the county’s vote tally after the March primary. Announcement of the missed ballots came after unofficial results were significantly delayed in part because more than a thousand ballot sheets were damaged as voters tried out the county’s new voting machines, which were meant to align the county with new requirements for voting paper trails. The issues prompted Longoria’s resignation. She’s slated to step down on July 1.

Local Republicans have characterized the reporting delays, in part, as the result of poor logistics and have advocated returning to regional drop-off locations, which are still used by other large counties.

Harris County has gone back and forth in recent years between regional drop-off locations. In 2019, the county ditched the setup at the last minute after a similar echoing of concerns between the secretary of state’s office and the local GOP. In that case, concerns were related to the county’s planned use of an encrypted internal network to transmit results.

In that election, the county turned to a contingency plan that included law enforcement escorts transporting ballot box memory cards from each polling site to the central counting station. Tarrant County similarly turned to sheriff escorts for the March primary when a hardware failure forced the county to abandon its regional drop-off plan.

Harris used regional drop-off locations as recently as the March primary in what it described as a bid to reduce drive times and relieve judges earlier in the night. But that did not address speed or efficiency issues, said Leah Shah, a spokesperson for the county elections office.

“In Harris County, the preferred method is to transport them manually, as a more secure method,” Shah said. “By assigning one election worker to two locations, we are able to reduce by half the number of cars we must process when receiving election equipment while also relieving election judges.”

Disclosure: The Texas secretary of state has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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