On Thursday morning Governor Greg Abbott issued a new proclamation that addresses some of the controversy surrounding election procedures in Harris County and other parts of Texas.
Invoking the governor’s powers under a disaster declaration, the proclamation suspends portions of the Texas Election Code and allows for drop off of completed mail-in ballots prior to election day, but adds stipulations that will take effect on Friday, October 2.
Specifically, Abbott’s proclamation, which carries the “force and effect of law,” restricts delivery of marked mail ballots to only one clerk’s office location in each county, and orders election officials to permit poll watchers to observe any activity “related to the in-person delivery of a marked ballot.”
“The State of Texas has a duty to voters to maintain the integrity of our elections,” said Abbott. “As we work to preserve Texans’ ability to vote during the COVID-19 pandemic, we must take extra care to strengthen ballot security protocols throughout the state.”
“These enhanced security protocols will ensure greater transparency and will help stop attempts at illegal voting.”
The new stipulations will have a direct impact on Harris County, where Clerk Chris Hollins has been allowing mail ballot drop-off since September 28 at any one of 11 new annex offices around the county.
Additionally, on September 29, poll watchers arriving to observe the intake of delivered ballots in the county were refused entry to these annexes.
According to emails obtained by The Texan, the Harris County attorney’s office told Election Administrator Michael Winn not to admit poll watchers with photocopies of signed certificates, although election code allows for the acceptance of scanned and emailed certificates.
Later, the Secretary of State’s Director of Elections Keith Ingram affirmed that the photocopied certificates were allowable under Texas Election Code, but did not necessarily allow for poll watchers at the annexes during mail ballot drop off.
The certified poll watchers have been denied entry to observe delivery and processing of the absentee and mail ballots since Tuesday, but Abbott’s proclamation will restore their access beginning Friday.
Houston area state Senator Paul Bettencourt (R) applauded Abbott for confirming the rights of poll watchers to observe all aspects of election administration.
“It is essential that the public be able to trust in the integrity of the election system,” said Bettencourt, who previously served as the elected Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector and Voter Registrar. “As a former elections official, it is bewildering to me that any county clerk would resist having poll watchers present to watch election officials do their job under the Texas Election Code.”
Bettencourt also said he had sent an open records request to the county regarding twelve contracts for election vendors approved by commissioners court last Tuesday.
During the commissioners court public meeting, it was revealed that the twelve had been hired by Hollins and were already performing work although they had not been vetted or approved by the county.
Purchasing Agent Dewight Dopslauf said he had not been provided with “scopes of supply” that usually detail the activities of approved vendors, and Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) noted that some of the contracts were for $49,999.99, which brought them just under the $50,000 threshold that would trigger a bid process before contracting.
Of the unvetted contracts, Bettencourt said he could not imagine using unvetted vendors for elections work.
“The public has a right to know what these contracts are for, how they are going to be paid, and what the performance metrics are.”
A lawsuit over Hollins’ plan to send mail ballot applications to every registered voter in the county remains pending, and yesterday the Supreme Court of Texas (SCOTX) heard oral arguments in the case.
Arguing for the state and against the plan to mass mail the applications, Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins asserted that Hollins’ actions in that regard exceeded his delegated authority to manage elections. The state also maintains that the mass mailings of applications, which will be pre-printed with voters’ names and addresses, will contribute to voter confusion as to whether they are legally eligible to vote by mail.
A SCOTX decision in that case is expected soon.
Earlier this week, sworn affidavits related to a lawsuit filed with SCOTX alleged that state Senator Boris Miles (D-Houston) and Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) were involved in an orchestrated absentee and mail ballot fraud scheme that included insiders working at the county clerk’s office.
Miles has vigorously denied the allegations, and took to social media to condemn the governor’s actions.
“Abbotts’ order is nothing but voter suppression & in lock-step with [Republican] tactics across the country to make it harder for people to vote and for those votes to be counted,” wrote Miles.
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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.