Elections 2020Elections 2022Local News22 GOP Candidates Contest Harris County Elections, Seek Records Inspection

Harris County drew national attention and a criminal investigation into elections marred by delays, ballot shortages, and conflicting court orders.
January 10, 2023
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Election Day mishaps in the state’s most populous county drew widespread bipartisan criticism, lawsuits, and a criminal investigation. Now, 22 Republican candidates have filed formal election contests with requests to inspect electronic records, ballots, and related documents in Harris County.

In an exclusive interview with The Texan, attorney Elizabeth Alvarez, who is representing 17 of the candidates, explained that the county’s polling site closures may have suppressed a large swathe of votes and violated state law, leaving the true outcome of the elections unknown.

“There are rules and systems by which Harris County would have had to follow if they were going to close polling locations ahead of time,” said Alvarez. “If the county intended to close all of these polling locations in the suburbs, that probably would not have been permitted. But the county ‘constructively’ closed them, and I would argue that is worse.”

Under both state and federal law, if a county is going to close a polling location in a minority population area, residents must be notified and provided with the new location. Additionally, Texas code states that voters must not be required to travel more than 25 miles from home to vote.

Although Harris County did not formally close polling sites, a yet unknown number of locations were forced to turn away voters on Election Day. Republicans allege that clusters of those were in GOP-leaning areas in the northern portion of the county.

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In the election contest filed for Republican Alexandra del Moral Mealer, Alvarez cites research showing that closing polling sites reduces overall turnout by 3.6 percent.

“The scholarly work, some of which actually studies Houston specifically, showed that anywhere between 40 and 60 percent of people, even if they are habitual voters, will choose not to vote at all if you close their polling place,” said Alvarez. “That’s even if you present them ahead of time with the option to go to one that’s equidistant from their home as the one closed.”

Alvarez argues the numbers choosing not to vote rose significantly with Election Day closures, especially if voters visited more than one site unable to process them.

In a preliminary analysis, county Elections Administrator Clifford Tatum admitted several sites failed to open on time due to malfunctioning equipment and a shortage of workers, as well as failure to set up on time — a problem Tatum attributes in part to the Houston Astros World Series celebration the day before.

Additionally, multiple voting locations did not have adequate supplies of paper ballots, and the Harris County Republican Party has alleged that at least 24 sites were forced to turn away voters at some point during the day. Tatum’s report states that 68 election judges reported running out of paper ballots, but also calls the preliminary analysis inconclusive.

Alvarez said the county’s electronic records should have time-stamped data about which polling sites were or were not processing voters on Election Day. As part of an election contest, state law allows candidates’ attorneys to inspect unredacted ballots, documents, and equipment.

Alvarez, who has been litigating election contests in Texas for a decade, explained that attorneys for each candidate are typically permitted to examine the unredacted records either at the district attorney’s or elections office. Records selected for the case will then be copied and certified, and redacted only if they will be made public.

While the information likely to be collected from Harris County records cannot provide precise numbers, it could bolster the case that voters in some portions of the county were not able to exercise voting rights.

In a lawsuit over redistricting of commissioners’ precincts in Dallas County, litigated by Alvarez, although the federal court declined to order new precinct maps, the court did affirm that voter suppression cases could apply to “Anglo” as well as minority voters.

Although all 22 election contest lawsuits have been filed by Republicans, late on Election Day, civil rights advocacy group the Texas Organizing Project filed a lawsuit over the county’s delayed openings and poll closures. A district court judge then ordered the county to keep polls open an extra hour, but some precinct judges have testified that they were either not given timely notification of the extension or unable to comply due to a lack of supplies. Later that night, the Supreme Court of Texas overruled the lower court and ordered the ballots cast by voters arriving after 7:00 p.m. to be segregated and reported separately.

While Alvarez has previously won numerous election contests, such as that for Kaufman County criminal court judge Tracy Gray in 2018, she notes that most previous cases have been due to election fraud.

“In this situation, where voters have been unable to vote, there is not a lot of case law,” said Alvarez.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and others have called those questioning the county’s actions “election deniers” and equated them with the U.S. Capitol rioters on January 6, 2021. Alvarez states she never voted for Donald Trump.

“These laws allowing for election contests are in pretty much every state and have been on the books since long before I was born. This is the civil remedy provided by the law, and it has been around long before 2020,” said Alvarez.

Harris County is one of 91 Texas counties authorized by the Texas Secretary of State (SOS) for county-wide polling places (CWPP), having obtained approval in 2019. According to state election code, counties using CWPP may not reduce their number of polling places by more than 50 percent. The authorization notices also warn that the SOS has the authority to revoke authorization if the county is proven to be non-compliant with statute.

In 2021, SOS revoked Liberty County’s authorization to conduct CWPP after they misrepresented the type of voting machines used under Elections Administrator Klint Bush, who was suspended after being arrested in relation to another matter. The county was reinstated into the program in 2022.

Attorney Andy Taylor, who is representing contesting candidate Erin Lunceford, told The Texan that after the county objected to turning over unredacted records, Judge David Peeples authorized the elections office to redact documents before turning them over to Taylor.

The lawsuits contesting the 2022 election results in Harris County are:

  • Alexandra del Moral Mealer (R) v. Lina Hidalgo* (D) for Harris County Judge
  • Nile Copeland (R) v. Latosha Payne* (D) for the 55th District Court
  • Tami Pierce (R) v. DaSean Jones* (D) for the 180th District Criminal Court 
  • Bruce Bain (R) v. Cory Sepolio* (D) for the 269th District Court
  • Michelle Fraga (R) v. Christine Weems* (D) for the 281st District Court
  • Elizabeth Buss (R) v. David Fleischer* (D) for County Criminal Court 5
  • Mark Montgomery (R) v. Kelley Andrews* (D) for County Criminal Court 6
  • Mark Goldberg (R) v. Erika Ramirez (D) for County Criminal Court 8
  • Sartaj Bal (R) v. Toria Finch* (9) for County Criminal Court 9
  • Dan Simons (R) v. Sedrick Walker* (D) for County Criminal Court 11
  • Matthew Dexter (R) v. Genesis Draper* (D) for County Criminal Court 12
  • Chris Daniel (R) v. Marilyn Burgess* (D) for Harris County District Clerk
  • James Lombardino (R) v. Audrie Lawton-Evan* for Civil Court 1
  • Aaron Adams (R) v. LaShawn Williams* (D) for Civil Court 3
  • Brian Staley (R) v. Monica Singh (D) for Civil Court 4
  • Dan Spjut (R) v. Juanita Jackson (D) Civil Court 10
  • Rory Olsen (R) v. Jason Cox* (D) for Harris County Probate Court 3
  • Will Archer (R) v. James Horwitz* (D) for County Probate Court 4
  • Kyle Scott (R) v. Carla Wyatt (D) for County Treasurer
  • Stan Stanart (R) v. Teneshia Hudspeth* (D) for Harris County Clerk
  • Mike May (R) v. Jon Rosenthal* (D) for Texas House District 135

* denotes an incumbent.

The election featuring the narrowest margin of victory is that between Pierce and Jones for the 180th District Criminal Court. If provisional ballots cast by voters who arrived after 7:00 p.m. are excluded, the margin between the two is a mere 89 votes out of more than 1 million cast.

Olsen and Lombardino are represented by attorney and former Harris County Republican Party Chair Jared Woodfill.

In addition to the election contest lawsuits, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office is conducting a criminal investigation in conjunction with the Texas Rangers. The SOS is slated to audit all county elections from 2020 to present.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include all 22 lawsuits from Republicans contesting election results in Harris County.

Update: House Speaker Dade Phelan dismissed May’s election contest in the race for Texas House District 135 after May failed to pay statutory fees. Contested state House elections are referred to the House Speaker, while all others are filed in district courts.

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Holly Hansen

Holly Hansen is a regional reporter for The Texan living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.