Issues with elections procedures began days before March 1 as election judges found that supplies were not available for pickup at the appointed time on Friday, February 25. Even after the delayed distribution of supplies on Saturday, election workers complained that many kits were lacking essential equipment.
The situation worsened by Tuesday, and during a conference call with the Texas Secretary of State’s Office (SOS) and representatives from the local Democratic and Republican parties, Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria notified the state that her department may not be able to count all early and election day ballots by the statutory deadline of 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 2.
According to a statement from Secretary of State John Scott, the counting delay was “due only to damaged ballot sheets that must be duplicated before they can be scanned by ballot tabulators at the central count location.”
“Our office stands ready to assist Harris County election officials, and all county election officials throughout the state, in complying with Texas Election Code requirements for accurately tabulating and reporting Primary Election results. We want to ensure that all Texans who have cast a ballot in this year’s Primary Elections can have confidence in the accuracy of results.”
According to the state election code, however, any votes counted after the statutory deadline may not count unless the county obtains a court order. Furthermore, under laws in effect since 1986, failure to deliver precinct election returns by the deadline is a Class B misdemeanor.
Calling the county’s elections problems the “worst in 40 years,” Harris County Republican Party (HCRP) Chair Cindy Siegel told KPRC news, “This has been a complete mess. We’ve had equipment delays, we’ve had equipment problems, equipment wasn’t delivered, we had polls that were unable to be set up.”
In a statement to The Texan, HCRP said that after consulting with the SOS, “if the count does not appear to be near completion in all races by [Wednesday] afternoon, the parties have tentatively agreed to seek a court order to require the Harris County Election Administrator to continue counting beyond the 24-hour deadline required by law, and to enjoin the law to allow the count to continue.”
Responsibility for conducting primary elections falls to the two main political parties, but they have contracted with the Harris County elections division to administer the elections.
Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) who formerly served as the Harris County voter registrar, called for immediate changes to the elections division.
“[Harris County Judge] Lina Hidalgo must fire her hand-picked election administrator,” Bettencourt told The Texan. “Because if she doesn’t, I don’t think we’re going to have an election in November.”
In 2020, the three Democrats on the Harris County Commissioners Court overruled objections from two Republican commissioners and the Democrat elected voter registrar Ann Harris Bennet to create the new office of elections administrator. Prior to the revamp, the elected county clerk and elected voter registrar managed elections in the state’s largest county.
The commissioners court then appointed Longoria, a former staffer for state Sen. Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston) who had previously run unsuccessfully for Houston City Council, with an annual salary of $190,000.
Under Longoria’s guidance, the county approved $54 million for the elections division last summer which included $14 million to purchase new voting equipment.
Earlier this year, Longoria told commissioners the March primary would cost more than $8.8 million.
In 2020, Harris County received nearly $10 million in grants from Mark Zuckerberg’s Center for Tech and Civic Life and another $1 million in 2021 just before the Texas Legislature restricted such private grants.
According to sources familiar with the equipment, the second page of the paper ballot has been jamming machines and now requires entry by hand. Allegedly, although the early voting period ended Friday, as of Tuesday, the elections division had not been able to tally all ballots.
Following the announcement from SOS Tuesday, Longoria denied there were problems and stated she was “the nonpartisan election administrator running this election.”
As of 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, Harris County had only reported results for 206 of 750 voting centers.
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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.