On Monday the DOJ announced in a press release that it would be sending agents to 24 states to monitor compliance with federal voting rights laws. In addition to Harris County, the DOJ will send monitors to Dallas and Waller counties.
Elections monitors are not unusual. In 2019, SOS sent 123 inspectors to monitor elections in multiple counties during the constitutional amendment election, with five of those sent to Harris County. Since then, the state has provided at least one or more inspectors to Harris County for every election. According to Texas Election Code, upon written receipt of a request from 15 registered voters, the SOS must send an election inspector to any county in the state.
Likewise, the DOJ regularly sends monitors to some jurisdictions and did so for Harris and Waller counties in 2020.
Last week, Harris County Commissioners Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) and Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2) sent a letter to the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division requesting federal attorneys and staff to monitor the 2022 midterm elections over concerns about state inspectors.
The request came in response to a letter from the Texas Forensic Audit Division Director Chad Ennis to newly appointed Harris County Elections Administrator Clifford Tatum notifying him of issues discovered in an ongoing audit of the 2020 elections and requesting a plan to remedy the previous errors.
Harris County’s mistakes found by the state include missing chain of custody and other record-keeping documentation, unexplained mismatches in the number of voters signed in and the number of votes cast in drive-thru voting, and destruction of equipment needed to re-read or audit the 2020 ballots.
In his letter, Ennis noted that the SOS would be sending inspectors to observe Harris County’s central count operations and “perform randomized checks on election records, including tapes and chain-of-custody, and will observe the handling and counting of ballots” and electronic elections equipment.
Additionally, the Texas Office of Attorney General has agreed to dispatch a task force “available to immediately respond to any legal issues identified by Secretary of State, inspectors, poll watchers, or voters.”
In their letter to the DOJ, Ellis and Garcia wrote that the SOS letter to Harris County “undermines trust in the democratic process by using preliminary and unsubstantiated findings from a not-yet-complete partisan-driven probe into Harris County’s 2020 general elections.”
Ellis and Garcia add that the state’s new election law, Senate Bill (SB) 1, “is considered one of the most restrictive voting laws in the country with a disproportionate impact on voters of color.” The two expressed objection to prohibitions on drive-thru and 24-hour voting, claimed that newly implemented voter identification requirements for mail-in ballots have a disproportionate effect on minorities, and said the “expanded powers of partisan poll watchers” will allow intimidation tactics to be used against workers and voters.
In 2020, poll watchers from the Harris County Republican Party were told they would not be permitted to observe the drop-off and intake of absentee and mail ballots. SB 1, passed in 2021, stipulates that while certified watchers may not interfere with an election, they must be allowed to observe and report on irregularities and may not be removed except for violations of penal code.
Although County Judge Lina Hidalgo did not sign the letter sent by Ellis and Garcia on November 2, she previously condemned the SOS for sending monitors to the county’s elections division, calling the audits an “irresponsible dirty trick.”
In addition to the current audit of the 2020 general election, Harris County was also one of four counties randomly selected for forensic audits to be conducted after the 2022 general election.
Democrats on the commissioners court instructed the county attorney’s office to explore the possibility of legal action, but have thus far been unsuccessful in blocking the state’s audit procedures. Earlier this year, congressional Democrats called for the DOJ to also monitor the audits.
Harris County has struggled to manage elections since 2020, most notably during the 2022 March primary when former Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria announced her office had failed to include 10,000 ballots in counts provided to a district court judge.
On October 24, Tatum replied to the SOS, writing, “I am responding to assure you that Harris County is in fact prepared for this November 2022 General Election and that the issues you identified will not occur in the 2022 General Election,” but also asked for clarification of the inspectors’ roles.
In an interview with FOX26 reporter Greg Groogan, Tatum said he welcomed the scrutiny of monitors.
“Trust but verify,” said Tatum. “And if there is a process that we are not doing right or that we could do better, we are all open for that.”
The most populous in the state, Harris County has 2.56 million registered voters, and Tatum projects that 1.2 million will participate in the 2022 General Election.
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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.