If Americans want to understand how genuine “voter suppression” works, they should take a look at the widespread disenfranchisement of voters in Harris County, Texas, during the 2022 midterms.
On Election Day, county election officials’ misadministration of the contest led to ballot paper shortages, delayed openings and temporary closures of voting centers, and an untold number of disenfranchised voters.
“I have never seen anything so egregiously, grossly mismanaged as the elections in Harris County this past year,” said Harris County GOP Chair Cindy Siegel during a recent Texas Senate committee hearing.
For context, Harris County is the third-most populous county in America. While historically favorable to Republicans, county residents have increasingly voted for Democrats in recent election cycles. During the 2020 election, for instance, Joe Biden won the county by 13 points, with Democrats also expanding their majority on the county’s governing commissioners court last fall.
Not long after the polls opened on Election Day, local media outlets began reporting that several Harris County voting centers were experiencing ballot paper shortages, delayed openings, and problems with voting machines.
What Happened in Harris County?
Nearly two months after the election, Harris County released an “inconclusive” assessment detailing the reported problems election workers and voters encountered on Election Day. In addition to ballot paper shortages, the report confirmed that some voting centers “did not open on time,” with reasons ranging from staffing problems to election officials not receiving the keys to their center’s voting equipment prior to polls opening.
The report further revealed that during the early part of Election Day, the county’s ePollbook server “lost replication,” which “prevented the wait time tool from updating the website, prevented the supply team from seeing real-time check in and disabled the sample ballot look up feature.” Such circumstances “had a direct impact on the ability [of county election officials] to see how many voters were being checked-in and what the wait times were” at any voting center.
While the assessment says that 68 precinct election judges “reported running out of their initial allotment” of paper ballots, an investigation conducted by local news outlet KHOU 11 indicates the problem was more widespread. According to the investigation, 121 of the county’s 782 voting centers “did not initially receive enough ballot paper to cover voter turnout.”
“The county allotted each of the locations six ballot paper packets, or enough for 600 ballots. But the total votes cast exceeded that amount, sometimes by hundreds of ballots,” the KHOU 11 report reads.
At the committee hearing, Siegel testified that one of the Harris County GOP’s precinct chairs developed a “heat map” purportedly showing that “the majority” of the 121 polls were in “Republican voting areas.”
The KHOU 11 investigation also found that on Election Day, 52 voting centers “received less paper in 2022 than ballots cast in 2018.”
Harris County has not disclosed why voting centers ran out of ballot paper. It also remains unknown how many voters were disenfranchised as a result of such issues.
Investigations and Continued Cover-Up
Following the Nov. 8 contest, leading Texas Republicans began demanding answers from Harris County officials over the locality’s Election Day problems. On Nov. 14, GOP Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statement calling on the secretary of state, attorney general’s office, and Texas Rangers to “initiate investigations into allegations of improprieties in the way that the 2022 elections were conducted in Harris County,” adding that voters “deserve to know what happened.”
Not long after, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg announced her office had launched an investigation into the county’s Election Day problems following a request from the Texas secretary of state’s office to help with an inquiry into “possible criminal activity relating to shortages of paper ballots.” After receiving backlash from Texas Democrats, a bureau chief in Ogg’s office defended the investigation, saying Ogg was following state law.
Despite the seriousness of the matter, leading Harris County officials have attempted to stonewall efforts to uncover what led to the administrative failures on Election Day. When pressed by Harris County’s commissioners in January about the ballot paper shortages, Clifford Tatum, Harris County’s election administrator, refused to provide any details, using a lawsuit filed against his office by the Harris County GOP as justification for remaining mum.
County officials have displayed similar evasiveness with local media. Last year, KHOU 11 and a local ABC affiliate filed open records requests with Harris County over records related to the Nov. 8 election. After the Texas attorney general denied a request from Harris County to dismiss the requests last month, the locality filed a lawsuit against the AG’s office last week to keep the records hidden.
Texas Republicans Offer Solutions
In response to Harris County’s extensive track record of failed election administration, Texas Republicans have introduced numerous bills this year seeking to enhance the integrity of the state’s elections.
If passed and signed into law, SB 1911 would allow any county official responsible for acquiring election supplies who “intentionally fails to provide an election precinct with the required number of ballots” to be charged with a Class A misdemeanor. Said officials could also be charged under the same statute for failing to “promptly supplement the distributed ballots upon request by a polling place.”
Individuals convicted of a Class A misdemeanor are subject to a fine of up to $4,000, a maximum of one year in jail, or both.
Also introduced is SB 1039, which mandates local election officials address inquiries related to election irregularities and provide “explanation[s] and “supporting documentation” when such information is requested by local and state party chairs, candidates, or election judges.
“This is about a catastrophic lack of performance in Harris County,” said bill sponsor and Republican Sen. Paul Bettencourt during last month’s State Affairs Committee hearing. “It’s too big to ignore. The state can’t afford this type of problem in Harris County and neither can the residents.”
Additional election integrity bills introduced by Texas Republicans would make illegal voting a felony, withdraw Texas from the leftist-controlled voter-roll management system known as ERIC, and grant the secretary of state the power to suspend and replace an election administrator, among other reforms.
The kinds of Election Day failures displayed in Harris County are notably problematic because of the partisan difference in how Americans vote. While Democrats have made unsupervised, mail-in voting a key facet of their electoral strategy, Republicans prefer in-person voting on Election Day.
If this trend grows, it means that any election misadministration on Election Day will continue to disproportionately harm GOP voters over Democrats. Such circumstances would only further contribute to Americans’ waning confidence in U.S. elections, making accountability for what happened in Harris County all the more necessary.