Introduced by county Judge Lina Hidalgo (D), the resolution asserts that election fraud across the country is “increasingly rare.” The document approved by commissioners court refers to the audit as a part of an effort to “chill participation and shatter the public’s confidence in the electoral process.”
“It is an irresponsible political trick,” Hidalgo said during a press conference last week. “It is a sham. It is a cavalier and dangerous assault on voters and on democracy.”
“I’m doing everything in my power to stop this.”
Hidalgo and other Texas Democrats have accused Gov. Greg Abbott of bowing to pressure from former President Trump to audit elections, but Abbott says the process began months ago.
Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) voiced concerns over the price to taxpayers since he said news reports indicated an audit in Maricopa County, Arizona had cost as much as $6 million in total costs.
Republican Commissioners Tom Ramsey (Pct. 3) and Jack Cagle (Pct. 4) pushed back on the characterization of the audit as merely political.
“I will not be supporting the motion primarily because I think it is an opportunity to provide some transparency,” said Ramsey who added that taking election responsibilities from the elected county clerk and the tax-assessor collector had undermined voter confidence in the system.
“To do an audit every now and then is not a bad thing; it encourages confidence in what the vote was.”
Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) said he opposed the political tone of the resolution and noted that Harris County had its own auditor performing audits on county processes and offices.
“The truth does not mind being questioned, and I think that we have an auditor’s office to assist us so that we can improve and have best practices,” said Cagle. “Businesses use audits, governments use audits. I do not support the resolution.”
“I tend to agree that an audit isn’t a bad thing,” added Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2) but said it depended on how the audit was done.
County Attorney Christian Menefee has challenged Abbott’s assertion that the audit process had begun months ago, even prior to President Trump’s public call for election audits in Texas. Menefee has submitted open records requests to the Texas Secretary of State’s (SOS) office for related internal documents.
Appointed Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria said she had not received any information or additional requests from the SOS.
“We’re still talking about an old election that nobody cares about,” said Longoria at last week’s press conference. “I don’t even know that the Secretary of State has the authority to do it.”
Longoria took over operations of Harris County elections after the resignation of interim county clerk Chris Hollins following the 2020 general elections. Hollins sat on a five-member election committee that voted 3 to 2 to create the office of elections administrator against opposition from the elected Tax-Assessor Voter Registrar Ann Bennet (D).
Longoria informed commissioners court Tuesday that she would operate at least six 24-hour polling locations during the November 2021 elections, and that she would also have a polling site within the Harris County jail on San Jacinto Street that would be available to both jail inmates and employees.
A new law approved during the second special session of the Texas legislature bans 24-hour voting, but Senate Bill (SB) 1 does not take effect until December of 2021.
State law already requires some audit procedures such as partial manual counts of ballots, but the SOS could conduct full manual recounts in some circumstances. SOS has provided an informational document outlining the audit procedures and citing existing law authorizing the process. Some of the Phase I actions have already been completed, but Phase II, a “comprehensive records examination,” will not take place until Spring 2022.
Harris County’s election activities in 2020 prompted multiple lawsuits and interventions from both the SOS and the Texas Attorney General’s office. Controversies included attempts to send unsolicited mail-in ballot applications to all voters regardless of eligibility, 24-hour polling locations, and drive-thru voting.
Drive-thru voting proved especially problematic with allegations of equipment errors that led to more votes than voters in some cases. During the second special session, election transparency legislation authored by Sen. Paul Bettencourt’s (R-Houston) would have allowed a civil complaint procedure for triggering an election audit. Although SB 97 passed the Senate, it was not taken up by the house before the end of the session.
Hidalgo will be up for re-election next year and has already drawn one Republican opponent in Humble ISD Board President Martina Lemond Dixon.
A copy of the resolution can be found below.
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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.