Earlier this week, KHOU News reported that 52 county voting centers received fewer paper ballots in 2022 than votes cast in the 2018 elections and that 121 voting centers only received 600 paper ballots but processed far more voters.
Salyards Middle School in the northwest corner of the county, for example, only received 600 ballots but processed 1,037 voters on Election Day according to KHOU’s investigation.
In a preliminary analysis, county Elections Administrator Clifford Tatum acknowledged that 68 election judges reported running out of paper ballots on Election Day, but insisted the investigation had been inconclusive so far.
During a Tuesday meeting of the Harris County Commissioners Court, Tatum insisted the media accounts referring to 121 voting centers were “inaccurate,” but on advisement from the county attorney’s office did not elaborate on election issues due to pending litigation and an ongoing criminal investigation.
Commissioner Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3) asked Tatum to provide an update on the Election Day problems, including delayed openings and malfunctioning equipment in addition to the paper ballot shortages. Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) suggested the issue should be discussed in an executive session, but Ramsey refused.
“I’ll not be participating in a behind-a-closed-door meeting on this issue,” said Ramsey. “Either we’re able to communicate publicly on what we can [say] rather than going into executive session.”
“Some of these questions are pretty straightforward, in terms of the strategy associated with, how do you determine how many ballots are sent to polling locations. Is that based on the number of people that voted and why would you send fewer [ballots] … if that happened?”
Following the meeting, KHOU reporter Jeremy Rogalski attempted to ask Tatum follow-up questions, but Tatum refused, saying the original report had been misunderstood.
ABC13 news reporter Nick Natario also queried Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo about Tatum attributing delayed polling site openings to the Houston Astros Championship parade, but Hidalgo also refused to discuss the issue.
The records identified by KHOU will also be inspected by attorney Elizabeth Alvarez, who is representing 17 of the candidates contesting election, including Republican Alexandra del Moral Mealer, who ran for Harris County judge. Unlike typical civil court trials, election contest cases allow attorneys to inspect county election materials either at the elections office or the district attorney’s office.
The cases represented by Alvarez have been consolidated and, along with cases represented by attorneys Andy Taylor, Paul Simpson, and Jared Woodfill, have been assigned to retired Judge David Peeples of Bexar County.
During a hearing last week, attorney Oliver Brown, who is representing District Court Judge DaSean Jones, filed an anti-Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) motion to dismiss the case. Anti-SLAPP motions are typically used in free speech cases; the judge has not yet ruled on the validity of the motion.
The contest between Jones and Republican Tami Pierce features the narrowest margin of victory in the 2022 election, with the two separated by a mere 128 of more than one million votes cast.
Peeples held a second hearing with attorneys for all parties Thursday, during which the defendants’ counsel argued for delaying any trials until after the May 2023 elections. Alvarez pointed out that Texas election code calls for an expedited process in the case of election contests.
Attorney Neal Manne, representing Hidalgo, argued that he would need to depose hundreds of witnesses in the case and therefore needed a delayed trial. Manne also represents defendants suing Harris County in federal court alleging that bail requirements are unconstitutional.
If contestants prevail, the judge will order new elections for each. But Peeples warned attorneys that however he rules, the cases are likely to be appealed, further delaying their resolution.
Originally 22 Republicans had filed legal election contests, but one was dismissed by Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) after candidate Mike May failed to pay the necessary fees.
In December 2022, the Texas secretary of state released the results of an audit of the 2020 general election finding “serious breaches” of legal procedures in Harris County. Election contests must be filed within a 45-day window after results are canvassed.
The next scheduled hearing in the election contest is set for February 16.
Update: This article has now reflects Harris County’s final canvass totals indicating the margin between Jones and Pierce.
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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.