Harris County, Texas, primary issues lead to partisan blame

A week later, everyone agrees: the primary was a flawed disaster. Isabel Longoria, the county’s chief election commissioner, tendered her resignation this week, stating, “We have lost voter confidence.”

But what Republicans and Democrats in the nation’s third-most populous borough disagree on is exactly what went wrong or what to do about it. Republicans are complaining and demanding that the state take over the Democrat-controlled polling station. Democrats say the problem is a new Republican law that makes voting by mail more difficult and criminalizes voting errors.

The result, in Harris County at least, is new evidence of a weakened system too fragile to withstand the everyday disruptions and errors of conducting an election in a state where parties are too deeply divided to address these issues to solve together. That worries voters, who fear a worst-case scenario in which a majority of Americans simply no longer trust the outcome of the election.

“The politicization of our elections undermines confidence in our democracy,” said Chris Hollins, a Democrat who ran the Harris County election in 2020 and is now running for Houston mayor. “Instead of saying, ‘Great, the process works,’ the answer is, ‘Look what happens when Democrats run a city.’ Or: ‘Look what happens if they change this law.’”

Nearly a year and a half after the 2020 election, former President Donald Trump‘s false claim that the result was stolen continues to resonate across the country. Trump’s claims convinced millions of supporters that the US election is fraught with crowds Fraud, sparked a wave of restrictive new election laws and pushed Democrats in many states to vehemently oppose most of the new laws, accusing the GOP of intentionally undermining election confidence.

Harris County was an epicenter of these forces. Home to Houston and governed by a Democratic majority, the county made headlines in 2020 by expanding voting access to counter the effects of the pandemic. Officer Mailed ballot applications sent to eligible voters, operated drive-through websites for early voting, and set up drop-off points where voters can deposit their ballots if they prefer not to vote in person or to use the mail.

Many Republicans denounced the changes. After Harris County went by more than 13 points for Joe Biden, GOP lawmakers claimed without evidence that the new practices invited cheating, and in September they enacted sweeping election legislation banning many of them. Senate Bill 1 also introduced new identification requirements for absentee ballots, imposed new criminal penalties for a variety of poll worker violations, and added new requirements for reporting election night vote counts.

Democrats fiercely opposed the law, arguing it would strip voters of the right to vote and bog down large counties with difficult demands to reconcile results on election night.

The March 1 primary offered the first real-world test of the law’s impact. As Democrats warned, it’s clear that a high percentage of mail-in ballot records have been rejected under the law’s new identification requirements. On Thursday, the Secretary of State’s office said it expects around 10 percent of mail-in ballots nationwide to be rejected — a far higher rejection rate than before SB1 was passed.

“To be clear, the election was thrown into chaos the moment Senate Bill 1 passed the legislature,” said Lina Hidalgo (D), who heads the Harris County Commissioners Court.

Longoria also cited the law to explain the chaos that broke out in her office on March 1.

“The process was rushed,” Longoria told commissioners on Tuesday. “There was a lack of government guidance. We had to print training manuals as we were still receiving instructions from the Secretary of State.”

However, other problems in the Harris County elementary school did not appear to be directly related to SB1. Poll officials were ill-prepared to operate a new ballot-voting system that was used for two 2021 elections, but which most voters were encountering for the first time this year. At a district commissioners’ meeting on Tuesday, poll workers complained of inadequate training and technical support, as well as unforced errors such as the delivery of the wrong-size ballot at some polling stations.

“We had a whole series of voting machines that failed,” said an election judge at the meeting. “Our scanner didn’t work right away. We had to put ballots in the emergency slot. The envelope wasn’t big enough at the end of the night.”

And then there was the 10,072 vote error. A poll worker could not transfer the votes from a storage drive to the computer used to count the statewide voters, officials said. The error was discovered by state officials as part of a new disclosure rule in SB1 that requires counties to publish how many voters cast ballots and how many ballots were counted. If the numbers don’t match, state officials can order an investigation.

In Harris, the numbers were way off the mark, prompting the state’s chief election official, Keith Ingram, to demand an explanation from the county on March 4. This resulted in the admission of thousands of missed ballots.

Sam Taylor, a spokesman for the Secretary of State, said the incident proved the value of the new requirement. “Any time a potentially election-changing number of votes goes uncounted, that’s a serious oversight,” Taylor said.

But county officials said their own electoral process caught the error before the election results were confirmed this week, and they said pressure to release unofficial results within a day of the election contributed to the error. The discrepancy did not change results at Harris or any national races.

“Make room for error — that’s what we’ve been saying since they introduced SB1,” said Harris County Democratic Party leader Odus Evbagharu. “It was the whole point of SB1 – to criminalize and punish people for simple human errors.”

Harris County Republicans took advantage of the mistakes. They said Democrats “deliberately mismanaged” the primary, called for Longoria to be fired, demanded that the state take over polling for the remaining contests this year, and filed a lawsuit alleging that the mistakes disenfranchised Republican voters. They also accused Hidalgo, who is seeking re-election this year, of a “cover-up” after she also asked for Longoria’s resignation.

“You blamed Trump, and you blamed partisanship,” Jack Cagle, a Republican district commissioner, told Hidalgo at Tuesday’s public meeting. “What destroys trust is polling stations that don’t open, equipment you can’t pick up, long lines, delays and, even when found, 10,000 ballots that weren’t there when they were supposed to be there and were later saved.”

Officials won’t know exactly how many machines are down until the supplier, Hart InterCivic, is able to examine the equipment weeks from now after the election results are final. Election officials said Thursday that many of the machine problems were due to operator error, such as: B. not plugging in a power cord, and that only 10 out of about 12,000 machines would need to be replaced on election day. Hidalgo on Tuesday announced plans to hire an independent consultant to investigate what went wrong.

In addition, Steven Sockwell, a vice president of Hart, said at Tuesday’s meeting that the number of ballots that could not be electronically scanned, at about 1,400, was small relative to the total ballots cast — less than half of 1 percent . Amid a flurry of questions about why voters struggled with two-sided ballots and whether it accounted for some of the difficulties, Sockwell also noted that there’s always a “learning curve” when adopting a new voting system.

“Getting on paper was the problem, not two pages. It’s difficult for a county the size of Harris to deal with such issues on such a large scale,” Sockwell said, noting that Harris County is Hart’s largest customer — larger even than two entire states, Hawaii and Oklahoma, the served his company. Sockwell stressed that all 1,400 ballots would be counted by the end of the night.

Such nuances have been lost in partisan rhetoric.

“Because of inexperience, incompetence, and disingenuous behavior, Harris County has had the worst election we have seen in my lifetime in 40 years,” said State Senator Paul Bettencourt (R), who was a co-author of SB1. Bettencourt added that he intends to introduce more legislation in 2023 to prevent what happened in Harris County that year.

Republicans also criticized Longoria’s announcement that she would stay through July to ensure continuity for two upcoming elections, one in May and the other in June. Hidalgo said she expects to install a new administrator in time for November’s general election.

Rodney Ellis, a Democratic member of the County Commissioners Court, said he believes the primary demonstrated the value of SB1’s new disclosure requirements. Though opposed to SB1, he argued that Democrats’ unique focus on criticizing the law — even provisions that could improve election administration — was a mistake.

“The headline of Senate Bill 1 has to be that it’s bad for democracy. It’s an oppressive law,’ Ellis said. “But there are pieces in there, little nuggets that we should keep and just keep using.”

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