The last thing we needed right now was a grossly incompetently run election and elected officials then dissembling about what happened. But that is exactly what we got from the Harris County over the last week regarding last Tuesday’s primary elections. In the fifty years that I have been working in and following local elections, I have never seen anything vaguely similar to the dysfunction in this election. The series of missteps will only further serve to undermine the public’s confidence in our elections.
First, let me say at the outset that I am not suggesting there was any intentional election fraud by anyone at the County, or anyone else for that matter. From everything I have heard the snafus affected both parties’ primaries. I think this is an application of my version of Hanlon’s razor: “Never attribute a government screw-up to corruption or conspiracy that can be explained by sloth and incompetence.”
Second, anyone who is blaming what happened in Harris County on SB1 is engaging pure partisan trope. The reason we know that is because Harris County was the only county out of Texas’ 254 counties that had this kind of debacle.
There were early signs of trouble. Only a few days before the election, the director of training was fired. Then there were multiple reports that precinct judges were waiting for hours to pick up their equipment and supplies. Many judges reported that when they got to their precinct locations they discovered they did not have all the equipment, it was not working and/or that supplies, primarily ballot paper, were missing from their packages. It just doesn’t seem that hard to me to create a checklist of everything that should be in the package.
As election day wore on, there were complaints from all over the County about long lines and equipment problems. A friend from Kingwood told me that the line was over an hour and a half long.
Then the count started. And people waited and waited and waited for results. The following day, there was still no final count and Harris County notified the Secretary of State it would not meet the statutory required 24-hour deadline. By the way, that requirement has been in place for decades and has very rarely been missed. None of the other 253 counties were late.
If that would have been the end of it, I suspect everyone would have written it off as another instance bureaucratic inefficiency and moved on. But just before 10 pm on Saturday night, the County issued a press release that disclosed, for the first time, that about 10,000 mail-in ballots had not been included in their preliminary final results. Of course, the mere fact that the County waited until 10 pm on a Saturday to announce this blockbuster news is obviously suspicious. But it gets worse.
In Sam Kelly’s Chronicle story about the missing votes, he reported that the Secretary of State’s Office notified the County of the discrepancy on Friday. However, the County filed its election reconciliation report on Thursday which clearly shows that 10,072 votes were missing, with the notation “further investigation needed.” In other words, the County knew about the missing votes for well over 48 hours before it was made public.
What makes it even more chilling is that this is the first election where filing a reconciliation report was required per SB1. Had that provision not been in place, would we have ever know that 10,000 votes did not get counted? If the Secretary of State not inquired about the discrepancy would Harris County have ever disclosed that 10,000 votes were not counted? Would they have ever been counted? Has this ever happened in any previous election when there was no requirement to file a reconciliation report with the State?
Of course, Isabel Longoria, Harris County’s Election Administrator, has now fallen on her sword and resigned and the County is anxious to close the book on this fiasco. But that should not be the end of this.
First, we need to know exactly what caused the 10,000 votes to not be counted to be sure that never occurs again. Second, we need to know exactly why the information about the missing votes was concealed for over 48 hours. And most importantly, who was involved in keeping that secret for two days.
Of course, this debacle should hardly be surprising. The County purged almost everyone who worked on previous elections simply because they had worked from a Republican office holder. As result, there are very few at the County who have any experience in actually running an election.
Also, Longoria had zero election administration experience when she was appointed. Rather, much like the one-person firm awarded the now infamous $11 million vaccine contract, her credentials primarily consisted of serving as a Democratic political operative.
When Lina Hidalgo was elected, she promised a new era of ethics and competence at County government. She pledged that appointments and contracts would be awarded on the basis of merit, not as political patronage. However, it is increasingly becoming apparent that she either she never meant that, or she has been corrupted by being in office. Either way, Harris County residents are paying the price.