The March 2022 primary elections in Harris County drew controversy and multiple lawsuits when Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria announced her department would not be able to tally votes by statutory deadlines. Then, three days after telling a district court judge the count had been completed, Longoria informed the public that nearly 10,000 ballots had been left out of the counts.
Following the controversy, Longoria submitted a resignation effective July 1 and Commissioner Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3) called for an audit. Instead, in a 3 to 2 vote along partisan lines, the commissioners court approved a no-bid $125,000 contract with marketing and research firm Fors Marsh Group (FMG) to conduct a third-party evaluation of the county’s primary election procedures.
FMG, which claims its primary goal is to reduce inequities and improve lives through issue and policy advocacy, recently submitted an unofficial first draft to the county. Their report details the results of “in-depth interviews” with representatives of the County Office of the Elections Administrator (OEA) and election technology vendor Hart InterCivic. They also conducted a survey of election judges and poll workers and formed focus groups consisting of 23 election workers and judges in total.
Additionally, the report includes some analysis of call log data and communications from the OEA and comparative information from Tarrant County elections administrator Heider Garcia.
Among the findings, FMG reported that the transition to new voting equipment purchased in January 2021 created multiple problems, although this was the sixth election using the new machines. The county reportedly did not have adequate space or dedicated electricity sources for the equipment, although Hart InterCivic “provided detailed storage requirements” during the bidding process and later conducted “warehouse-level training.”
“However, the Election Office has, to date, not acquired storage to meet the minimum requirements they provided,” FMG wrote. “According to Hart, ‘the result of that inadequate storage space is general disorganization and the inability for the Election Office to properly execute pre- and post-election procedures.’”
FMG indicated the county’s transition from using the elected county clerk and tax assessor-collector to manage elections created staffing headaches, since only workers who were assigned full-time to elections responsibilities could be transferred to the new OEA created in 2020. Longoria reported having to create new positions and organizational charts and says she still did not have enough staff by the March 2022 election.
Consequently, existing staff worked long hours and on multiple tasks, which delayed equipment drop-off and vote-counting procedures.
The FMG report also notes that many election workers were recruited only weeks before the elections and that the OAE director of training failed to produce a training manual by the end of January 2022. 66 percent of poll workers said training was in-depth enough, while 35 percent of first-time workers said they were not adequately prepared. Longoria also suggested that changes to Texas’ election code mandating stricter identification requirements for mail-in ballots contributed to delays in creating training materials.
In addition to worker training, FMG suggested a need for more voter education, but wrote that “much of the funding initially planned for education and outreach had to be repurposed as part of the office’s internal budgeting process in order to meet other pressing elections needs.”
Although Tarrant County has also experienced difficulties with election equipment and management, FMG included suggestions from EA Garcia that issues could be addressed through more hands-on training for workers and media and community events to educate voters.
FMG has not yet completed its evaluation and expects to provide a second report later this year.
Earlier this week, the county’s five-member Election Commission voted unanimously to replace Longoria with Clifford Tatum, an election consultant and attorney who previously served as the executive director of elections for the District of Columbia and as general counsel for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. Tatum also served as the interim director of the Georgia State Elections Division and in the legal affairs department of the Georgia secretary of state.
But before Harris County can make a formal offer, Tatum must relocate to Texas and register to vote in the state. Longoria’s salary was $190,000 per year, and the commission has not publicized Tatum’s salary offer.
While Tatum touts extensive experience in election administration, some critics have noted complaints surrounding his management of elections in the past.
Once Tatum takes over management of the OEA, he will have a narrow window to prepare the department for early voting, which begins October 24.
Since 2020, Harris County’s budget for elections has ballooned. The commissioners allocated $27.7 million that year while accepting private grants of nearly $10 million, and later shifted another $3.3 million from the county’s contingency funds to the OEA.
In January 2021, the commissioners court approved spending $54 million for the new Hart InterCivic voting equipment. Commissioners approved an OEA operations budget for March 2021 through February 2022 of $13.36 million and accepted another $1 million in private grant funds just before a state law banning the practice took effect last year. A full summary of OEA spending during that period is not yet available.
In response to the FBG report, Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) suggested the OEA may need additional funding. Ramsey has called for returning election responsibilities to the elected county clerk.
“It’s clear our elections suffered from poor leadership and lack of experience in running elections,” Ramsey said in a statement to The Texan.
“One actionable measure for Commissioners Court is return responsibilities back over to the County Clerk and Tax Assessor Collector offices. The Court majority took the responsibilities away from those elected officials, gave it to an appointed official who couldn’t deliver, and now we’re being asked to fix it when really the power is now up to the Elections Commission, led by Judge Lina Hidalgo, and the Elections Administrator.”
“The voters should be electing who runs the elections, not the Court or the Elections Commission. We are four months away from the next election. I am forecasting a disaster.”
Phase II of the Texas secretary of state’s forensic audit of the 2020 election is still ongoing and results are expected later this year.
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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.