By Bill Pan
A preliminary report by the Texas Secretary of State’s office has identified “multiple failures” during last year’s elections in Harris County, the nation’s third-most populous county, but it didn’t suggest whether the outcome of any race was affected.
The Oct. 19 report—released days before early voting begins across Texas for the Nov. 7 election—confirmed that the ballot paper distributions for Election Day in 2022 didn’t comply with requirements outlined in the state election law, and could have prevented many Harris County voters from casting a ballot.
Under Texas law, election officials must follow a specific rule to calculate how much ballot stock to deploy to a given precinct. This allocation is equal to the projected voter turnout based on the most recent corresponding election plus 25 percent of that number.
“Harris County did not comply with the Texas Election Code requirements and instead relied on their own methodology,” the audit team said.
Even based on its own methodology, however, Harris County had failed to provide enough supplies. Election officials also failed to monitor voting trends on Election Day, according to auditors.
“This miscalculation of supply distributions, coupled with the county’s inability to monitor voting activity, meant that the county had no way to proactively provide needed supplies to their polling locations,” they added.
The audit also found inconsistencies across lists of registered voters maintained by the county and the state.
Independent County System
Harris County has its own voter registration system independent from the statewide voter registration system. Although the two systems are supposed to have identical information, the audit found discrepancies in terms of voter registration numbers and voting history.
In the statewide system, Harris County was listed as having 2,568,463 registered voters at the beginning of the 2022 early voting period. The county system, however, had 2,577,746 registered voters, resulting in a difference of 9,283 more voters.
Furthermore, the cumulative results and canvass report posted by Harris County showed a total of 2,543,162 registered voters, which reflected 25,301 fewer voters than had been recorded with the statewide system.
It remains unclear what caused this discrepancy.
“It is unknown whether this inconsistency is due to ineffective county procedures or the mismanagement of election and voter registration data,” the report read. “This is a sizable discrepancy that reflects the failure to accurately align various election systems utilized in Harris County.”
Similar problems existed when it came to mailed ballots, as almost 3,600 of those ballots were apparently sent to voters but not reported to the state, the auditors said.
A review of ballot-by-mail reports produced by Harris County showed that 81,070 ballots were mailed for the 2022 election. However, the total number of ballots mailed as reported to the statewide system by Harris County was only 77,487, resulting in a difference of 3,583 ballots.
Additionally, the Harris County post-election report suggested that 81,064 ballots were sent to the county’s voters.
Some other issues identified by the audit include avoidable equipment difficulties like paper jams, missing or incomplete paperwork, and insufficient training for election judges and clerks.
“Certain polling locations were experiencing frequent paper jams that resulted in a high volume of spoiled ballots,” the report said, noting that since Harris County was using a two-page ballot for the 2022 election, the paper jams led to many locations utilizing more ballot paper than anticipated, which could have further contributed to the ballot paper shortage.
“In fact, paperwork provided by Harris County indicated 12,833 spoiled ballots for the November 8, 2022 General Election.”
Between the ballot paper distribution issues and the equipment difficulties, the audit team found at least 38 polling locations had no voter check-ins for an hour or more on Election Day. They noted that there might have been more locations where voting was affected for shorter periods of time.
Additional findings may be included in the comprehensive report as new information becomes available, said Texas Secretary of State Jane Nelson.
“Harris County clearly had multiple failures conducting the election and violated election law for estimating needed ballot paper. Mistakes like these led to a poorly executed election which left many Harris County residents frustrated and may have prevented them from voting,” she said. “It is important to talk about these issues now in order to address them before the 2024 election cycle.”
Harris County’s controversial handling of the 2022 election led to the resignation of the elections administrator at the time, Isabel Longoria.
It has prompted Republican lawmakers to craft and pass a law that effectively eliminates the county’s elections administrator position and transfers all election duties to the county clerk and the tax assessor-collector.
Harris County is suing the state to reverse the law, arguing that it violates the Texas Constitution, which prohibits the Legislature from creating “special or local laws” that regulate certain county affairs. A district judge ruled in favor of the county, but the Texas Supreme Court in August overturned that decision, keeping the law in place as the legal challenge proceeds.
The upcoming election will be the first election since the law took effect on Sept. 1.