Politics

Harris County elections administrator faces criticism after vote-counting delays

The county GOP chair called on Isabel Longoria to be fired, and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she would look for a “full accounting” of what went wrong election night.

Isabel Longoria at Harris County election headquarters on March 1, 2022. Longoria has come under fire for delays in vote results.

Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria is facing criticism from Republicans and scrutiny from county leaders including County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who said she was looking for a “full accounting” of what caused the massive delay in tallying unofficial results.

Under state law, all election materials must be turned over to canvassing authorities from the two parties within 24 hours of polls closing, which set the deadline at 7 p.m. Wednesday. A county district judge on Wednesday evening ordered the materials to be impounded by 11 a.m. if Longoria’s staff had not finished their count, prepared precinct returns and got ready to distribute those records, according to court documents.

The materials were ultimately not impounded, though the unofficial tally was not completed until after midnight.

In a statement, Hidalgo criticized Republicans and the state’s new strict voting law, but conceded the election did not pass muster.

“State leadership lost their moral authority on elections the day they bought into the Big Lie and used it as the basis to pass SB1,” Hidalgo said. “Still, that does not absolve our own elections administrator from being expected to run a smooth and efficient election for our voters. I am eager to get a full accounting from the elections department, including any state, local, and party-level issues.”

Tom Ramsey, a Republican Harris County commissioner who opposed Longoria’s appointment, was more critical.

SB 1 did not play a direct role in the delay. Instead, the Texas Secretary of State pointed to sections of the election code that have been law since 2009 and 1986, respectively.

But Longoria’s office said on election night that SB 1 did lead to fears from some in the parties that not reporting in time would lead to more harsh penalties, although it’s not clear what section of the law would do so.

Longoria did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.

The unofficial count will most likely be updated in the coming days, in part because people with rejected mail-in ballots have six days to correct those ballots in person, and the results will eventually be made official.

Evbagharu said the irregularities will be fixed during that official counting process.

“The elections administrator still has 10 days to canvas, so before we start getting into irregularities, let them do their thing,” he said.

Election officials stressed after the polls closed Tuesday that issues with new voting machines were the primary reason for the delays. The new machines utilize paper ballots, which are printed out and scanned.

The change in machines was intended to make voting more secure, according to election officials.

Beth Stevens, Longoria’s chief director of voting, said state leadership has unnecessarily politicized the vote count, undermined the election’s certainty and distracted from finishing the vote count.

“Contrary to what has been talked about by the secretary of state and other officials, we have engaged what are best practices,” Stevens said. “We have made sure we are crossing our T’s, dotting our I’s, going through all steps required to make sure that we’re counting every vote and counting it accurately.”

The Harris County Republican Party filed a motion late Tuesday asking for all ballots counted after 7 p.m. to be seized. The motion caused voting to halt briefly, according to a spokesperson for Longoria. The court ruled that they would not immediately impound any ballots and the counting continued.

The move by Harris County Republicans did not surprise some expert analysts, who felt the party and its candidates would use it as an opportunity to criticize Democratic leadership. Longoria’s office was created by Harris County Commissioners Court on a 3-2 party line vote, and Republicans criticized the move, arguing that it would create a new powerful role with no accountability to voters.

“I think (the delay) will certainly favor Republican candidates in Harris County," Renee Cross, University of Houston political scientist, told Houston Matters on Wednesday. “Particularly those that are running for county judge, a good talking point about ineffectiveness of Democrats in office.”

Bob Stein, a political science professor at Rice University, said delayed results are nothing new for Harris County elections due to a number of factors.

“The Secretary of State has required that ballot boxes be returned to one central location rather than multiple, we moved to a new voting machine system, and we have the longest ballot — not just in Texas, but the whole country,” Stein told Houston Matters Thursday.

Republicans on Thursday slammed Longoria for the delays. County GOP chair Cindy Siegel, who filed the suit, said the election official shouldn’t remain on the job.

“In 40 years of business, I’ve never seen a disaster like this,” she said. “And what does that do? It hurts the voters.”

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