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Harris County election officials are coming under renewed criticism, calling for increased scrutiny — this time including from the state’s Republican leadership — over Election Day issues as the county continues to grapple with conducting efficient elections in a county as large as some states.
Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday called for an investigation into the problems voters faced on Election Day last week, citing late polling station openings, ballot shortages and staffing issues. Lt. gov. Dan Patrick supported that call, as did several residents who voiced their concerns during a Harris County Commissioner Court session Tuesday.
The county Elections Administrator has acknowledged some shortcomings and promised a full assessment once workers have completed their vote counting duties. The county has failed in several recent elections, but the clash is also the latest entry in a long line of political battles over how the state’s most populous county conducts its elections, which have increased in recent years after Republicans took control of lost the district.
“The allegations of improper elections in our state’s largest county may stem from anything from misconduct to manifest criminal conduct,” Abbott said in a statement Monday. “Harris County voters deserve to know what happened. Integrity in the electoral process is essential. To achieve this standard, thorough investigation is warranted.”
The governor called for the participation of the Secretary of State, the Attorney General and the Texas Rangers in the investigation into “allegations of impropriety in the conduct of Harris County’s 2022 election.” Although the governor raised the specter of crime, he made no specific allegations of criminal behavior in the election, nor is there evidence of widespread fraud.
Last Tuesday, a court order extended Harris County voting by an additional hour after delaying the opening of about a dozen polling stations. The county’s Elections Administrator, Clifford Tatum, has also acknowledged problems with insufficient ballots at some polling stations, although he said polling personnel have been dispatched to deliver additional ballots, as well as instances where technicians appear to have failed to respond to on-site technical problems.
While poll workers are still processing preliminary ballots, Tatum said his office is in the process of contacting each polling judge who oversees polling stations to inform a post-election report that will provide more detail on the scope of polling day issues — and the additional resources that may be needed to ensure the county’s 782 polling stations can operate properly.
“We are a transparent organization. We have nothing to hide,” Tatum told district commissioners on Tuesday. “We have an election plan. We followed the plan. Some of the plans did not go as expected. We’ll review what didn’t work, we’ll build on the things that didn’t work well, and we’ll correct the things that didn’t work well.”
The general election was the first contest to be overseen by Tatum, who has been in office for just a few months after replacing former elections administrator Isabel Longoria. Longoria tendered her resignation within days of the March primary, amid pressure from both political parties over slow counting related to the county’s move to new voting machines and its failure to include 10,000 ballots in its election night returns.
The fumbling sparked a lawsuit from the Harris County GOP, which this week again sued the county and Tatum, alleging violations of various provisions of the Texas Electoral Code. The party’s allegations include paper shortages that have disenfranchised voters and improper handling of spoiled ballots, as well as instances where a voter’s two-sided ballot could not be adequately scanned.
Harris County recently transitioned to new voting machines, replacing some of the state’s oldest machines and adapting the county to new state regulations requiring counties to use machines that leave a paper trail.
These machines require voters to make their choices 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 had scanning problems using the new machines, including during the primaries, when poll workers had to check more than 1,500 ballots to make sure they were counted correctly.
On Tuesday, Commissioner Tom Ramsey called for both an audit of the election and a town hall to gather voter concerns and issues.
“We have a problem in Harris County,” Ramsey said. “We don’t know how to conduct elections.”
Harris County is already subject to full by-election scrutiny by the state. The secretary of state’s office selected Harris for review earlier this year as part of a new scrutiny process instituted by sweeping ballot legislation Republicans passed last year.
A spokesman for the agency said it also “received information regarding alleged improprieties,” which it forwarded to the Texas Attorney General’s Office and Harris County District Attorney’s Office for investigation.
“At the same time … we will be gathering even more information to ultimately provide the public with greater clarity as to the causes of the problems observed in Harris County on election day,” Sam Taylor, a spokesman for the Secretary of State, said in a statement.
Harris County elections under both Republican and Democratic governments have long had a history of being slow in reporting election results. The county is more populous than about half the states, the largest in Texas, 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 polling headquarters.
The county has also regularly hosted partisan fighting over its elections, including the establishment of an Elections Administrator’s Office and electoral initiatives such as a move to statewide voting, allowing voters to cast their ballots at any polling station 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 limit local scrutiny of elections. This 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 — which were disproportionately used by voters of color.
On Tuesday, District Judge Lina Hidalgo — the district’s chief executive — said it was “important that bugs are identified and fixed, that vulnerabilities are identified and fixed.” Hidalgo promised the county would participate in the investigation, but she pushed back the state’s decision to single out Harris County “for the kind of harassment and political stunt we’re seeing.”
“There is a process to address concerns and to my knowledge the process does not include a press release announcing three different agencies going into a single county after also announcing two separate audits,” Hidalgo said.