Difficulties once again put Houston at the center of the Texas election

HOUSTON (AP) — A Democrat who is the top official in Texas’ largest borough on Thursday acknowledged problems around Houston on Election Day, including shortages of paper votes and delayed polling station openings, but waved a developing state police investigation as political.

Machine malfunctions and long lines were also reported last week at some of the nearly 800 polling stations in Harris County, which is home to nearly 5 million people and was previously at the center of Texas election clashes. Some voting rights groups have expressed concern that the investigation could be used by the GOP to justify additional voting rights restrictions.

State election officials said they had heard of no widespread voting problems in Texas, where Republicans won resoundingly Each statewide office and turnout was lower than in the 2018 midterm elections.

But Republican Gov. Greg Abbott said this week that “widespread issues” in Harris County — which Democrats wore comfortably at statewide races — warrant an investigation. This was followed by local prosecutor, Democrat Kim Ogg, who asked the Texas Rangers to investigate “alleged irregularities” that she said could involve criminal conduct, though her office has not said publicly what specific allegations warrant an investigation .

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, a Democrat who narrowly won re-election as the county’s chief executive against a Republican challenger, said she will ask the local election department to improve. However, she said difficulties at polling stations were not intentional and accused critics of fomenting conspiracies.

“It’s no surprise that all of this is happening in the largest county in Texas when the people peddling it clearly didn’t like the outcome of that county’s election,” she said.

Clifford Tatum, the county elections administrator, told commissioners on Tuesday that a polling station was opening “critically late” and that some had run out of paper, leading polling judges to send voters elsewhere.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Republican from Houston, said a polling station was having trouble getting more paper after there was enough for just 600 ballots. He said the difficulties are undermining public confidence in the elections.

“This is not about refusal to vote. These are real voter irregularities that need to be investigated,” Bettencourt said.

The Texas Department of Public Safety, which includes the Texas Rangers, did not immediately return a message Thursday seeking comment on the investigation.

At Tuesday’s commissioners’ court session, Tatum said an early assessment identified the need for an overhauled communications system between the district judge and the call center that handles requests for assistance. More than two dozen people spoke at the meeting, which eventually became so heated that the commissioners suspended proceedings.

“We have an election plan. We followed the plan. Part of the plan didn’t go as expected,” Tatum said.

Delayed openings at a dozen polling stations on Nov. 8 led a judge to extend voting by an hour in the country’s third-most populous borough. But the Texas Supreme Court later vacated that order, causing provisional ballots cast during that time to be overturned.

The smaller Bell County, which Republicans carried, also extended the vote by an hour because of technical problems. County officials said no one contested the more than 300 ballots cast during that time.

Democrat Rodney Ellis, a former state senator and now the Harris County commissioner, acknowledged that the county should have had more voting resources but said officials were adjusting to the new rules of the Republican-controlled legislature. These included requirements for paper voting systems, which received bipartisan support.

Harris County is no stranger to frustration and anger over voting. In March, former Democrat-appointed county election chief Isabel Longoria resigned after problems in the March primary These included about 10,000 mail-in ballots that were not counted on Election Day and a shortage of poll workers.

Delayed vote counts in Harris County have long frustrated Texas election observers, even though local Republican officials were in charge of the process. County efforts to expand voting during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 also prompted Republicans to impose new restrictions that went into effect this year, including a ban on drive-through voting and 24-hour polling stations.

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Weber reported from Austin, Texas.

__ Follow AP’s election coverage of the 2022 election at https://apnews.com/hub/2022-midterm-elections.

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