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Commissioners voted along party lines to move forward with legal action to block a state audit of county elections from 2020 through 2022.
August 4, 2022
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Harris County Commissioners Court voted 3 to 2 along party lines this week to mount a legal challenge to a state-planned audit of county-run elections over the past two years.

“There’s no reason for a politicized and politically motivated election audit especially after democracy nearly crumbled over this pandering,” said County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who equated the audit to the January 6 riot in Washington D.C.

Last week, the Texas Secretary of State’s (SOS) office announced the random selection of four counties for an audit of all elections from the 2020 general election through the 2022 general election, including all primaries. Senate Bill (SB) 1, the state’s new election overhaul law passed last year, mandates audits of two counties with populations fewer than 300,000 and two with populations greater than 300,000, selected at random.

Although the Office of the Secretary of State posted a video of employees drawing the names of counties to be audited from a bucket, County Attorney Christian Menefee told commissioners he found the drawing suspicious. He said the video looked like “a sketch comedy show,” and complained that the SOS had neither posted rules for how the counties would be selected nor notified counties ahead of time.

“Had we known this was going on, we would have had somebody there to ensure there was transparency in the process,” said Menefee.

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Prior SB 1, in September 2021, the secretary of state’s office announced it would launch audits of the state’s two largest Democratic and two largest Republican counties — Dallas, Harris, Tarrant, and Collin — for the 2020 election as permitted under law. The commissioners court voted 3 to 2 to legally contest that audit at the time but took no action.

Those 2020 audits are still underway, but earlier this year, the secretary of state’s office published a progress report indicating Harris County’s voter rolls included 3,063 potentially non-citizen voters.

Although last year, state legislators approved spending $4 million to conduct forensic election audits around the state, Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) asked interim elections administrator Beth Stevens to look into how much time county employees were spending on the current audit and at what cost to taxpayers.

Menefee did not provide an estimate of legal costs for contesting the audit.

Commissioner Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3) joined Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) in opposing the audit lawsuit, explaining there had clearly been problems with county elections such as polling locations not opening on time, lack of training, incorrect ballots given to voters, and delays in counting ballots in violation of state law.

Ramsey also referenced the 10,000 ballots left out of counts after the March 2022 primary election, only discovered due to new reconciliation requirements mandated by SB 1.

“I would think there’s been voter suppression in Harris County simply because we don’t know how to run an election,” said Ramsey. “I hope we will get to the point where we can run a reliable, stable, predictable election, but today we don’t have that.”

“If there’s any county in the state that needed auditing, it’s Harris County.”

Ellis said Menefee should not only look at how to block the audit, but invite the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the matter. He also said he thought the federal government should audit the entire state of Texas’ elections.

After the 2020 elections, commissioners voted 3 to 2 to remove elections responsibilities from the elected county clerk and elected tax assessor-voter registrar. The court appointed Isabel Longoria, a former staffer for state Sen. Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston), as the county’s first elections administrator.

Longoria, who has sued to block a state ban on sending out unsolicited mail ballot applications, resigned after the March 2022 primary. The county has offered the position to Clifford Tatum, an election consultant from Washington D.C., with a pay rate of $115.85 per hour or approximately $240,968 per year.

Earlier this year, commissioners rejected a request from Ramsey for a third-party audit of the March 2022 primary and instead voted 3 to 2 to hire a marketing and research firm to conduct an evaluation. The report from FORS Marsh Group identified multiple administrative mistakes but did not investigate election accuracy or security.

According to Stevens, there are now 2.5 million registered voters in Harris County. Although the county’s total population is estimated to include more than 4.7 million people, Stevens said she did not know how many of those residents were eligible to register.

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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.