Harris County’s election missteps fuel GOP lawsuit and calls for investigation

Ballots and scanning machines arrive at a central counting location after polls closed in Harris County on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022. (Michael Stravato For The Texas Tribune, Michael Stravato For The Texas Tribune)

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Harris County’s election officials are again facing criticism and calls for increased scrutiny — this time including from the state’s Republican leadership — over Election Day issues as the county continues to grapple with running an efficient election in a county as large as some states.

The missteps have prompted the Harris County district attorney to launch an investigation into allegations of “irregularities with the latest Harris County election that potentially may include criminal conduct.” In a Monday email, Kim Ogg, a Democrat, asked the Texas Rangers to assist in the investigation.

Ogg’s request, first reported by The New York Times and obtained by The Texas Tribune, was sent hours after Republican Gov. Greg Abbott called for an investigation into problems voters encountered on Election Day last week, pointing to late polling place openings, paper ballot shortages and staffing issues. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick backed that call, as did several residents who voiced their concerns during a Harris County Commissioner Court meeting Tuesday.

“The allegations of election improprieties in our state’s largest county may result from anything ranging from malfeasance to blatant criminal conduct,” Abbott said in a statement Monday. “Voters in Harris County deserve to know what happened. Integrity in the election process is essential. To achieve that standard, a thorough investigation is warranted.”

The county’s election administrator has admitted some shortcomings and promised a full assessment once workers wrap up their vote-counting duties. The county has made missteps in several recent elections, but the clash is also the latest entry in a long series of political battles over how the state’s most populous county runs its elections that ramped up in recent years after Republicans lost control of the county.

The governor called for the involvement of the secretary of state, attorney general and the Texas Rangers in investigating “allegations of improprieties in the way that the 2022 elections were conducted in Harris County.” Though the governor raised the specter of criminality, he offered no specific allegations of criminal conduct in the election, nor is there evidence of widespread fraud.

The Texas Election Code includes criminal penalties for various violations, including illegal voting, the unsolicited distribution of mail-in ballot applications by local election officials, and the failure to distribute election supplies.

Last Tuesday, voting in Harris County was extended by court order for an extra hour after about a dozen polling places were delayed in opening. County elections administrator Clifford Tatum has also acknowledged issues with insufficient paper ballots at some polling places, though he said election staff was dispatched to deliver additional ballots, as well as instances in which technicians appeared to fail to respond to technical issues in the field.

While election workers are still processing provisional ballots, Tatum said his office was in the process of contacting each election judge, who oversee polling places, to inform a post-election report that will provide more detail on the scope of election day issues — and the additional resources that may be needed to ensure the county’s 782 polling locations can be properly run.

“We are a transparent organization. There is nothing for us to hide,” Tatum told county commissioners on Tuesday. “We have an election plan. We followed the plan. Some of the plan didn’t go as anticipated. We will review what did not work, we’ll build upon the things that did not work well and we will correct the things that didn’t work well.”

The general election was the first contest overseen by Tatum, who has been on the job for only a few months after replacing former elections administrator Isabel Longoria. Longoria submitted her resignation within days of the March primary amid pressure from both political parties over slow vote counting related to the county’s switch to new voting machines and its failure to include 10,000 ballots in its election night returns.

The fumbles prompted a lawsuit by the Harris County GOP, which this week again sued the county and Tatum arguing it violated various provisions of the Texas Election Code. The party’s allegations include paper shortages that disenfranchised voters and the improper handling of spoiled ballots and instances in which a voter’s two-page ballot could not be adequately scanned.

Harris County recently switched to new voting machines, replacing some of the oldest machines in the state and aligning the county with new state rules requiring counties to use machines that leave a paper trail.

Those machines require voters to make their selections on an electronic device before feeding a printed version of their ballot into a scanner to cast their vote. The ballot is so lengthy in Harris that it requires two printed ballots per voter. A number of voters have faced scanning issues while using the new machines, including in the primary when election workers had to review more than 1,500 ballots to ensure they were properly counted.

On Tuesday, Commissioner Tom Ramsey called for both an audit of the election and a town hall to collect concerns and issues experienced by voters.

“We have a problem in Harris County,” Ramsey said. “We do not know how to run an election.”

Harris County is already subject to a full post-election audit by the state. The secretary of state’s office earlier this year selected Harris for review as part of a new audit process put into place by sweeping voting legislation Republicans passed last year.

A spokesperson for the agency said it had also “received information regarding alleged improprieties” it had referred to the Texas attorney general’s office and the Harris County district attorney’s office for investigation.

“Simultaneously … we will be collecting even more information to ultimately provide the public with greater clarity on the root causes of the issues witnessed in Harris County on Election Day,” said Sam Taylor, a spokesperson for the secretary of state, in a statement.

Under both Republican and Democratic administrations, Harris County elections have long been known for slow reporting of election results. More populous than roughly half of the states, the county is Texas’ biggest and typically has the most votes to process. Voting materials, including ballot boxes, must also be transported across the county’s nearly 2,000 square miles back to its election headquarters.

The county has also regularly hosted partisan battles over its elections, including the creation of an elections administrator office and voting initiatives like a move to countywide voting that allows voters to cast ballots at any polling place in the county on election day.

Harris was also at the center of sweeping Republican legislation passed in 2021 to further restrict the state’s voting process and narrow local control of elections. That new law, known as Senate Bill 1, banned methods championed by Harris County in the first major election during the pandemic — 24-hour voting and drive-thru voting — that were disproportionately used by voters of color.

On Tuesday, County Judge Lina Hidalgo — the county’s chief executive — said it was “important for mistakes to be identified and addressed, for weaknesses to be identified and addressed.” Hidalgo vowed the county would participate in the investigations, but she pushed back on the state’s decision to “single out” Harris County “for the kind of harassment and political stunt that we’re seeing.”

“There is a process for addressing concerns, and to my knowledge, the process does not involve a press release announcing three different agencies to go into a single county after also announcing two separate audits,” Hidalgo said.