Following reports of widespread database issues, questions about the relocation of a polling site, and a message to poll workers instructing them not to speak to media, the Harris County Commissioners Court discussed Primary Election concerns in a public meeting Tuesday.
According to several voters, onsite poll workers did not have updated address information matching recently issued voter registration cards. Other registered voters were missing from the database entirely.
Reportedly, in these cases, poll workers either fixed the problem over the phone with the voter registrar and the county clerk, or offered voters provisional ballots.
Several poll workers also said the database did not properly identify individuals who had requested a mail-in ballot.
Alan Vera, ballot security chairman for the Harris County Republican Party, warned that some voters might be able to vote twice if mail ballots were not correctly noted in the database.
As of Friday, Vera had retrieved data from the county’s website indicating there were voters who had both submitted a ballot by mail and who had voted in person, and some that have returned more than one mail-in ballot.
At the Commissioners Court meeting, staff from the Election Division explained that the data Vera accessed was just “preliminary” and needed to be reconciled, and that following the elections if there were multiple votes cast by the same voter, the Ballot Board would make determinations as to which votes were valid.
County Clerk Diane Trautman (D) also insisted to commissioners that there were no voters who voted twice.
But members of the Republican Party Ballot Board and Signature Verification Committee told The Texan it would be difficult to spot duplicate mail ballot votes from a single voter.
“A team at one table could be looking at one mail ballot from “Bob,” not knowing that two tables down another team could be looking at a second mail ballot from “Bob.” It’s not possible for the Ballot Board to spot and correct multiple mail ballots from a single voter.”
“It’s incongruous for Dr. Trautman to say that no voters have voted twice when it’s her own data that reports multiple votes from individual voters,” said Vera.
In addition to issues reported with databases last week, County Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Precinct 4) raised concerns over a Kingwood-area polling location that had been moved 26 miles away from the original location.
Cagle noted that per the county’s contract with the two main political parties, a polling site could not be moved outside of the precinct unless the parties agreed.
The Elections Division had planned to move the polling location for Kingwood’s Precinct 0199 out of Commissioner Precinct Four and into Commissioner Precinct One, which would also place the site into completely different districts for State House, State Senate, and Congress.
Cagle explained the distance presents a significant problem for Republican party members who are required to return to the site after polls close if they wish to participate in their precinct convention: a necessary step for those planning to participate in GOP district and state conventions.
“When you move these individuals…and say they have to cross Beltway 8, and they have to cross Loop 610…to participate in their precinct convention, you are extremely disenfranchising them,” said Cagle.
Harris County Republican Party primary director Donna Stanart said that the party had not agreed to the new location for 0199.
Democrat Party Chair Lilly Schechter said they had been trying to compromise with the GOP on locations, but had been unable to come to an agreement.
In an email exchange with Stanart, Rachelle Obakozuwa of the Elections Division wrote, “Since there is a need in the east of Houston, this is the location we have been able to secure.”
When Stanart wrote back in protest of the breach of contract, Obzkozwa replied, “As I mentioned, this change is already occurring.”
On Tuesday though, Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Precinct 1) said that if necessary, they could simply add one more primary polling site.
Cagle suggested that while representatives from the Elections Division, the two parties, and the county attorney were present, they should step into another room to craft a solution.
The group then met separately from the Commissioners Court and agreed to hold the Republican primary for Precinct 0199 in Kingwood and add a site for the Democratic primary election for 0199 in East Houston in Precinct 0259.
During the public meeting, Cagle also questioned Trautman about a message the Election Division sent on February 22 instructing poll workers not to speak with the media.
Trautman told Cagle that since that issue was not on the agenda, she would not answer.
The message sent via the E-Poll books and provided to The Texan read, “All Poll Workers: Just a reminder that if anyone from the media visits your location, you are to call the Early Voting Call Center…so that someone from Outreach can assist them.”
But on Monday, Harris County Republican Party Chairman Paul Simpson sent a letter to Trautman warning that the restriction infringed on workers’ First Amendment rights to free speech.
Trautman responded with a letter saying she had consulted with Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan (D) and had determined that Supreme Court precedent allowed the county to restrict “employee speech,” and referred to SCOTUS rulings upholding speech restrictions at polling places in particular.
After the elections, Trautman said poll workers could speak to the media as “former County employees.”
At Commissioners Court, Trautman also complained that groups and media outlets covering the county’s election problems were “pushing misinformation” to stop voters from voting.
“This is voter suppression, plain and simple,” said Trautman.
Trautman also came under fire last year due to similar database problems during early voting, and difficulty and delays in reporting results after the November 5 elections.
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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.