Elections 2021Local NewsDelays, Staffing Hiccups, Equipment Problems Interrupt Harris County Election Process

The county’s newly created office of elections administrator struggled to manage operations Tuesday and is drawing further scrutiny from the Texas Secretary of State.
November 5, 2021
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Despite having revamped the elections division and spending $54 million on new voting machines, Harris County struggled to cope with elections snafus this week that included inadequate staffing levels, lack of training, equipment problems, and logistical challenges.

Although early voting results are usually posted at the time polls close on Election Day, Harris County was unable to provide any results until nearly 10:30 p.m. Final tallies were not fully reported until 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday, although other large Texas counties and even other entire states had provided the public with unofficial results shortly after midnight.

Late Tuesday night, the county’s elections department wrote in a social media post that they “had some power issues at central count” that would delay results.

Referring to the World Series game taking place that evening, they continued, “Watch the game and catch us after for Election results. Go Stros!!”

According to workers at central count operations, a power fluctuation interrupted work mid-afternoon on Tuesday and the elections division did not have adequately charged battery back-ups in place. Thus a  “logic and accuracy” (L&A) test of computer equipment that is required prior to processing ballots cast by early and absentee voters was long delayed.

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Although the required test usually takes a few hours, an L&A test conducted by the elections division back in September took more than nine days to complete, prompting calls to re-hire experienced elections staff that had been fired after the county’s transition to an elections administrator.

Additional issues occurred after polls closed as election judges traveled to NRG Park to deliver equipment and ballots. In previous years, drop off sites were situated in several parts of the sprawling county, but now the elections division requires all 700-plus precincts to drive the materials to NRG in Houston. 

“After 18 hours of serving as an election judge, I then had to wait in a car line for two hours to drop off,” Robert Choate, an election judge, told The Texan.

Shortly after 5 a.m. Wednesday, Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria stated on Twitter that she was waiting for a school custodian to wake up to open a school supply closet that purportedly contained a missing ballot box. 

After receiving all election day ballots, staff scrambled to complete essential work before packing up all equipment and vacating the NRG facility which had been leased only until 11:59 a.m. Wednesday. The remaining work of processing will take place on county property.

County Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2) wrote on social media that “not getting timely results is unfair to voters and candidates,” but said he expected the issues were a “one-time glitch” and then complained that county elections had earned a poor reputation due to former Republican county clerk Stan Stanart who left office in 2018.  

Election Day judges also expressed frustration over equipment failures and a lack of training for election workers. 

According to an email from Harris County Republican Party (HPRC) Chair Cindy Siegel, although the parties were to recruit election judges and workers, “Training was limited or non-existent.”  

“We requested several times access to the new machines so that our election workers could be trained. It wasn’t until early voting when we were allowed to come in and use [machines to] create a video on how to use it,” Siegel wrote. 

“Interestingly enough, the same day we were allowed access the [Harris County Democrat Party] posted a professionally done video where they showed the old and new equipment and how to use it.”

The HCRP notes that lack of training may have been a factor in multiple election judges leaving either boxes full of paper ballots, electronic ballot records, or both at polling sites Tuesday evening, thus creating a chain of custody concerns.

On Wednesday, Texas Secretary of State John Scott released a statement saying that his office was working to ensure the integrity of the ballot-counting process in Harris County for the November 2 elections.

“The Secretary of State’s office will work to ensure that all ballots were handled appropriately and counted validly.”

Multiple sites reported equipment problems, and election judge Rolando Garcia said he was unable to process any voters at his polling site until 10:15 a.m. after two technicians had addressed equipment failures.

The county also faced staffing issues and on Monday, the day before the election, Longoria sent an urgent plea to both the local Democrat and Republican parties to find persons who could serve as election judges for 30 locations, noting that she would modify the usual requirements including those for training. 

By Tuesday morning, election day, Longoria informed the parties that six polling sites would not open due to a lack of staff.

Under the prior county organization, two elected officials — the county clerk and the tax assessor-voter registrar — managed various aspects of elections in the state’s most populous county. 

Last year however, despite bipartisan opposition, Harris County commissioners voted 3 to 2 to create the office of elections administrator with a base salary of $190,00 per year. 

Before the vote, Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) argued that it would be “better to have an office that focuses every day of the year, for 12 months, on ‘What can we do to make this process of running elections as seamless [as possible]?’”

Following this week’s election, Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) said it would be better to return to the county’s former model for election management.

“We have an unelected bureaucrat who was appointed by three members of commissioners court. There’s no accountability to the public,” said Cagle.

 Last year Ellis had also vowed that a “neutral, nonpartisan administrator will increase election integrity, increase voters’ trust in the process.”

A hiring committee consisting of county Judge Lina Hidalgo (D), the county political party chairs, Tax Assessor and Voter Registrar Ann Harris Bennet (D), and interim County Clerk Chris Hollins selected Isabel Longoria, a former staffer for state Sen. Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston) with no elections work experience. Both Bennet and then HCRP Chair Keith Nielsen opposed the appointment.

The elections department managed by Longoria has hired former Ellis campaign staffer Tyler James to serve as chief of staff, and former Texas Civil Rights Project staffer Beth Stevens as a director of operations.

Under Longoria’s administration, the county opened 16 drive-thru voting sites this year and held the first-ever polling site inside the county jail where reportedly nearly 100 ballots were cast.  As of December 2021, drive-thru voting will no longer be permitted under state law.

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Holly Hansen

Holly Hansen is a freelance writer 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.