Elections 2022Local NewsGOP Seeks State-Appointed ‘Special Master’ for Harris County Elections

A procedural error brought a county’s election commission meeting to a halt while a GOP lawsuit seeks state oversight for upcoming elections.
April 8, 2022
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Although embattled Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria submitted her resignation to the Harris County Commissioners Court last month, her resignation is not effective until July 1, leaving her in charge of two elections slated for May.

Now, however, the Harris County Republican Party (HCRP) is seeking a state-appointed “special master” to supervise Harris County elections since they say Longoria has lied about ballot counting, inappropriately fired employees and disqualified Republican election judges, and is continuing to mismanage runoff election planning.

An application for a temporary restraining order and injunction filed by HCRP with the 165th District Court last weekend states that on March 3, Longoria told Judge Fredericka Phillips the election count had been completed. A few days later, Longoria admitted that 10,000 ballots were not counted. Due to Longoria’s testimony, Phillips declined to impound materials and moved to dismiss the lawsuit. 

Since then, Longoria has continued to spar with HCRP Chair Cindy Siegel over management of the party’s runoff elections and has allegedly fired county employees in her department.

According to a sworn statement from Jeramie Gant, he was terminated as a full-time member of the central count team on March 4, 2022, three days after the primary election. Gant says he has worked on Harris County elections since 2004 and has been a permanent employee of the county clerk’s office since 2007, but was transferred to the new elections division after it was created in 2020. 

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Both Gant and another terminated employee, Abbey Acheson, describe issues with the elections division that include knowingly sending malfunctioning equipment to polling locations, not providing adequate staff or training, and conducting counting activities out of sight of required cameras for livestreaming the process. 

While the state’s election code requires a continuous public livestream of the count, allegedly the elections division suddenly stopped the stream available on a YouTube channel before the count was completed but “buried” a different livestream on the county elections website without notifying the public.

The HCRP lawsuit also describes how some polling sites were given the wrong sized paper for ballots, which cut off certain races, while giving other voters incorrect ballots that did not allow them to vote for their congressional or state representatives. 

Before the March 1 primary election, HCRP Chair Cindy Siegel says Longoria’s staff did not adhere to the list of election judges and alternate judges provided by the party, although state election code gives authority to party chairs to appoint these workers. 

In the most recent dustup, Longoria accused Siegel and the HCRP of refusing to sign off on polling locations for the May 7 and May 24 elections. Longoria told the commissioners court on Tuesday that HCRP had failed to provide the names and locations of polling locations, after which Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) suggested that the county did not have to contract with the Republican Party to run the election. 

Commissioners then approved Longoria’s list of polling locations in a 4 to 1 vote with Commissioner Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3) voting against, and Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) saying his vote was only to approve locations for the constitutional amendment election on May 7. 

On Wednesday however, HCRP attorney Steve Mitby sent a letter to Longoria and the county attorney’s office pointing out that according to the contract terms signed earlier this year, the county must use the same 375 polling locations for both the March 1 primary and the May 24 runoff election unless particular sites are unavailable. 

Citing Section 5 of the contract, Mitby writes, “If a prior polling location cannot be used for some reason, then the [elections administrator] is obligated to find a polling location in the same precinct or close to the same precinct.”

Mitby also disputed Longoria’s claim that HCRP did not provide names of polling locations, noting that instead on March 31, the HCRP primary election director emailed Longoria to ask why her department had reduced the number of polling locations from 375 to 260.

Also on Wednesday, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo held the first meeting of the county’s election commission since 2020, purportedly to officially engage a search firm to find a replacement for Longoria. 

Siegel and County Clerk Teneshia Hudspeth (D), however, questioned Hidalgo as to why the meeting agenda did not include an action to formally accept Longoria’s resignation. 

“The proper resignation is to this body, not to the public,” said Hudspeth, who pointed to state code governing the selection of a replacement administrator. 

According to Texas open meetings requirements, an agenda item must be made available to the public at least 72 hours before the meeting.

After consultation with the county attorney’s office in an executive session, Siegel, one of five members of the commission along with Hidalgo, Hudspeth, Tax Assessor Ann Bennett (D), and Democratic Party Chair Odus Evbagharu, motioned to adjourn the meeting until the public could be properly noticed. 

In a fiery exchange between Hudspeth and Hidalgo, Hudspeth said, “Well, the reason why we’re here is because this wasn’t done properly in the first place. I believe that we have not been transparent about this entire process, and we have to do that.”

Although Hidalgo and Evbagharu protested, Hudspeth retorted, “Let’s stop the political theater. The entire body may have missed a step.” Bennett, Hudspeth, and Siegel voted to adjourn, overriding opposition from Evbagharu and Hidalgo. 

Commissioners had voted 3 to 2 on party lines to authorize the Elections Commission to launch a search for a new administrator, with the court’s two Republicans in opposition to County Administrator David Berry pushing the commission to use a search firm Berry preferred.

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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.