Politics

Texas agencies’ plan to monitor Harris County elections raises concerns among observers

In a letter sent Tuesday to Harris County’s elections administrator, the Texas Secretary of State’s Office said it and the Texas Attorney General’s Office will dispatch inspectors, security trainers and legal advisors to the county during the upcoming midterm election.

Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
Campaign and voting signs line the entry way to a polling station in Harris County.

The Texas Secretary of State's Office, in a letter submitted days before the start of early voting for the 2022 midterm election, has informed Harris County it will send a team of inspectors and election security trainers to observe and help administer the Nov. 8 election in the state's largest metropolitan area.

Representatives from the office of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is on the ballot and seeking reelection, also will be present in Harris County to "immediately respond to any legal issues" raised by the inspectors, poll watchers and others, according to the Tuesday evening letter sent to Harris County Elections Administrator Clifford Tatum and obtained by Houston Public Media.

The letter cites preliminary findings of the secretary of state's ongoing audit of the 2020 election in Harris County, claiming there are unexplained irregularities in vote tabulation and chain-of-custody procedures, as the basis for the state's involvement in this year's election.

An attorney with the Austin-based Texas Civil Rights Project, along with a Rice University political science professor who has long studied elections in the Houston area, both described the move as unprecedented, politically partisan and potentially an attempt to slow down the voting process and undermine voters' confidence in the results.

"That is an obviously very dangerous development in the midterm election here in Texas," said James Slattery, the senior supervising legislative attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project, a nonprofit that advocates for voting rights. "There is no obvious purpose to this letter other than a preemptive strike by state officials to discredit publicly the results of the 2022 election here in Texas, even before a single person has gone to the polls."

The seven-page letter, accompanied by training materials related to the use of voting equipment, was first reported Tuesday night by Scott Braddock of the Quorum Report.

In a Wednesday statement released by the Harris County elections office, Tatum acknowledged receipt of the letter and said he was reviewing it in conjunction with the Harris County Attorney's Office. Neither the Harris County Republican Party nor the Harris County Democratic Party immediately responded for requests for comment about the letter and its implications for the upcoming election.

The communications office for Paxton, a Republican who is facing Democrat Rochelle Garza, did not immediately respond to a Wednesday request for comment. Sam Taylor, a spokesperson for Secretary of State John Scott, responded to a series of emailed questions by saying his office would allow the letter to "speak for itself at this time."

Early voting in Harris County is scheduled for Oct. 24-Nov. 4 at a total of 99 polling places.

"As you know we're five days away from the start of Early Voting for the November 8 election, and we are focused foremost on ensuring this election runs smoothly," Tatum said.

Slattery said oversight of Harris County's election amounts to a conflict of interest for both Paxton and the secretary of state. Scott was appointed by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who is facing Democratic challenger Beto O'Rourke in a hotly contested gubernatorial race.

Scott is overseeing Texas' audit of the 2020 election, which was publicly requested by then-President Donald Trump in the aftermath of his loss to Democrat Joe Biden. Paxton accompanied Trump at a rally in Washington D.C. on Jan. 6, 2021, immediately before the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Paxton also filed unsuccessful lawsuits in 2020 that sought to disqualify votes in four states won by Biden.

"It's outrageous to me that the secretary of state and the attorney general would be taking these steps, because they have an obvious set of conflicts of interest here," Slattery said. "The attorney general is a candidate on the ballot in this very election, and yet he is intending to send his own staff members to quote-unquote respond to issues in the largest and most diverse county in the state. The secretary of state himself is an unconfirmed appointee of the governor whose very job depends on that governor winning reelection in the very election he is now taking steps to be involved in."

Tatum's predecessor, Isabel Longoria, resigned amid criticism after the March primary, when Harris County did not complete its vote tallies until more than 24 hours after the polls closed. Her office also announced a few days afterward that about 10,000 votes were not included in the initial results it released to the public – although the mistake did not affect the outcome of any races.

Bob Stein, the aforementioned Rice University professor, acknowledged Harris County's problems during the primary but said state oversight in the general election is unjustified. He also said claims of widespread voter fraud in Texas – which precipitated the passing of election-related laws by the Texas Legislature in 2021 – have proven unfounded.

Among other changes to voting procedures, the 2021 law increased protections for partisan poll watchers and limited local voting initiatives such as the ones employed by Harris County in November 2020, including drive-through voting and 24-hour voting. Some of the irregularities cited in the letter by the secretary of state's office pertain to drive-through voting.

Both Slattery and Stein said state officials are continuing to single out Harris County, which has turned Democratic during the last few elections cycles in a state long controlled by Republicans. Stein said the agents of the state, in their role monitoring elections in Harris County, figure to be more receptive to Republican poll watchers than those who are Democrats.

Stein also said it is unclear in the letter whether the monitors will be only at Harris County's central counting facility or at other polling locations. He said there is the potential for "difficulties" and "altercations," partly because the new voting laws leave it ambiguous as to who has ultimate authority at a given polling place. In his estimation, it's the election judge at each location.

"This seems as if this is an action taken by the Texas secretary of state and attorney general with no reason to believe there are problems," Stein said. "It seems to be overtly partisan, and it remains to be seen whether it helps the integrity or simply slows down the ability of the voter to vote, to count and get an accurate outcome of this election."

Taylor, from the secretary of state's office, said it sends inspectors to Harris County during every election as well as other counties if such resources are requested or determined to be needed by the office. He also said most of the inspectors are "former county election officials themselves, so they have the ability to catch mistakes before they happen and make sure proper chain-of-custody protocols and Texas Election Code laws are followed."

Slattery said dispatching people to monitor local elections is "unprecedented" for the attorney general's office, adding that he's unsure what legal authority the office might have in such a role.

Slattery also said Houston-area voters who might encounter problems while casting their ballots can call 866-OUR-VOTE, a toll-free hotline operated by Texas civil rights organizations such as his, the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and the League of Women Voters of Texas.

"You should not feel discouraged in voting," he said. "We are monitoring this, because it might turn out all right. But it is worrying for how this can be abused."

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