In addition, the SOS will be sending inspectors and trainers to observe and assist the county with procedures as well as perform randomized checks on election records from early voting through ballot tabulation. The attorney general’s office will also dispatch a task force to the county to immediately respond to any legal issues identified by SOS staff, poll watchers, or voters during the 2022 general election.
The state’s plans were outlined in a letter from Director of the Forensic Audit Division Chad Ennis to the county on Tuesday describing violations of both state and federal election codes that govern chain of custody and record keeping in elections management.
Issues found by auditors relate primarily to the county’s extralegal “drive-thru” voting initiated by then-interim County Clerk Chris Hollins.
Auditors found that for at least 14 polling locations the county does not show chain of custody for the Mobile Ballot Boxes (MBB) and that there were multiple MBBs created for some voting locations. Auditors say the MBBs from the polling locations “were not the MBBs ultimately tabulated.” They also note that they have been able to locate some missing MBBs, but have not been given an explanation as to why the originals were not tabulated. Each MBB can hold 9,999 ballots.
Another issue found by auditors is that poll book and provisional voting data provided by the county do not match the number of cast vote records on some of the devices.
Ennis also noted that after upgrading voting systems the county does not appear to have retained “any equipment or computers that provide relevant reports or alternatively, can read the MBBs” from 2020 or recover the cast vote records stored in them as required by both state and federal election codes.
A spokesperson for the SOS explained to The Texan that the office sends inspectors to Harris County, and many others, for every election.
“Our inspectors are former county election officials themselves, so they have the ability to catch mistakes before they happen and make sure property chain-of-custody protocols and Texas Election Code laws are followed.”
Last year, the secretary of state launched a forensic audit of the 2020 elections in the state’s two largest Democratic and two largest Republican counties. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo called the move an “irresponsible dirty trick” and sought to legally block the state’s investigation.
Although Hollins oversaw the 2020 general election, that year, commissioners voted to take election responsibilities away from the elected county clerk and voter registrar’s office and appoint an elections administrator instead. County elections experienced multiple problems under the first elections administrator Isabel Longoria, including 10,000 uncounted ballots in the reported totals after the March 2022 primary election. Longoria resigned in July and has been replaced by Clifford Tatum.
While Hidalgo has not succeeded in legally blocking the audit, Ennis’ letter to Tatum notes that under Longoria, the county had not been cooperative.
“While we have had the benefit of cooperatively working with the other three counties subject to the audit, we cannot say the same of our experience working with your predecessor,” wrote Ennis.
“The previous Harris County Elections Administrator failed to respond to our initial requests for basic information in our December 10, 2021 letter, forcing our team to take extraordinary steps to obtain responsive records. The lack of response forced our team to make at least seven trips to Harris County to review paper records in the Election Technology Center warehouse. We were not provided an inventory of the records nor were we given the opportunity to speak with Harris County Elections staff.”
While thanking Tatum for better cooperation, Ennis then notes that records Tatum’s staff provided recently “still leave many questions unanswered.”
In lieu of a third-party audit requested by Commissioner Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3), the commissioners court voted to hire marketing firm Fors Marsh Group to perform an analysis of the 2022 primary elections. Fors Marsh delivered its report to the county last July.
In a randomized drawing earlier this year, the secretary of state’s office again selected Harris County for a full forensic audit of not only the 2020 general election, but all elections since through the 2022 general. The state Legislature authorized the new audits in Senate Bill 1, which among other measures clarified provisions prohibiting drive-thru voting and sending unsolicited mail ballot applications.
In response, Harris County commissioners again voted to have the county attorney mount a legal challenge to the audits.
State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), the former Harris County voter registrar, told The Texan, “I hope these audit results make it clear how frivolous that stupid lawsuit was.”
In response to a request for comment, Harris County Elections emailed a statement to say the administrator was “reviewing the letter in conjunction with the Harris County Attorney’s Office.”
“As you know we’re five days away from the start of Early Voting for the November 8 election, and we are focused foremost on ensuring this election runs smoothly.”
The issue has spilled over into this year’s election for Harris County judge with Hidalgo accusing Republican Alexandra del Moral Mealer of being an “election denier” due to Mealer’s expressed support for auditing elections.
There were 2.56 million registered voters in Harris County as of September 2022.
A copy of the secretary of state’s letter to Tatum can be found below.
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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.