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Harris County, Texas, top issues lead to partisan accusations

A week later, there’s one thing everyone agrees on: the primary was a disaster riddled with errors. Isabel Longoria, the county’s top election official, tendered her resignation this week and said, “We have lost voter faith.

However, what Republicans and Democrats in the nation’s third-most populous county disagree on is exactly what happened or what to do about it. Republicans are suing and demanding that the state take over the Democratic-controlled elections office. Democrats say the problem is a new law enacted by Republicans that made it harder to vote by mail and criminalized voter errors.

The result, at least in Harris County, is further evidence of a weakened system too fragile to withstand the daily glitches and mistakes of holding an election in a state where the parties are too deeply divided to resolve these problems together. That worries supporters of the vote, who fear a worst-case scenario in which a majority of Americans simply no longer trust the election outcome.

“Politicizing our elections weakens trust in our democracy,” said Chris Hollins, a Democrat who ran elections in Harris County in 2020 and is now running for mayor of Houston. “Instead of saying, ‘Great, the process is working,’ the response is, ‘Look what happens when Democrats run a city.’ Or, ‘Look what happens when they change this law.’

Nearly a year and a half after the 2020 election, former President Donald Trump’s false claim that the result was stolen continues to reverberate across the country. Trump’s claims have persuaded millions of supporters that the US election is mass tainted fraud, sparked a wave of restrictive new election laws, and caused Democrats in many states to vehemently oppose most new laws and accuse the GOP of intentionally undermining confidence in the election.

Harris County was the epicenter of these forces. Home to Houston and governed by a Democratic majority, the county made headlines in 2020 by expanding voting access to counter the effects of the pandemic. Officials sent absentee ballot applications to eligible voters, operated early-vote drive-thru sites, and established drop-off points for voters to drop off their ballots if they preferred not to vote in person or use the mail.

Many Republicans vilified the changes. After Harris County opted for Joe Biden by more than 13 points, GOP lawmakers claimed without evidence that the new practices invited fraud, and in September they signed into law a sweeping election bill that banned many of them. Senate Bill 1 also established new identification requirements for mail-in voting, imposed new criminal penalties for various election worker offenses and added new requirements for reporting the vote count on election night.

Democrats fiercely resisted the law, arguing it would disenfranchise voters and drive large counties to failure with tough demands to reconcile results on election night.

The March 1 primary offered the first real-world test of the law’s effects. As Democrats have warned, it’s clear that a high percentage of mail-in ballots have been discarded under the law’s new identification requirements. On Thursday, the secretary of state’s office said it expected about 10% of absentee ballots statewide to be rejected – a much higher rejection rate than before enactment of SB1.

‘To be clear, the election was thrown into chaos the moment Senate Bill 1 passed the Legislature,’ said Lina Hidalgo (D), who leads the Harris County Court of Commissioners. .

Longoria also cited the law to explain the chaos that erupted in his office on March 1.

“The process was rushed,” Longoria told commissioners on Tuesday. “There has been a lack of guidance from the state. We had to print training manuals because we were still getting advice from the Secretary of State. »

But other issues in the Harris County primary didn’t appear to be directly related to SB1. Poll workers were ill-prepared to operate a new paper-based voting system that has been used for two elections in 2020 but encountered most voters for the first time this year. At a meeting of county commissioners on Tuesday, election officials complained about inadequate training and technical support and unforced errors such as delivering the wrong size ballot to some county offices. vote.

“We knocked down a whole line of voting machines,” a polling judge said at the meeting. “Our scanner didn’t work right from the start. We had to put ballots in the emergency slot. The envelope wasn’t big enough at the end of the night.

And then there was the error of the 10,072 votes. An election worker failed to transfer votes from a memory drive to the computer where voters across the county were counted, officials said. The error was discovered by state officials under a new disclosure rule in SB1 requiring counties to publish the number of voters who cast their ballots and the number of ballots counted. If the numbers don’t match, state officials can order an investigation.

In Harris, the numbers were wildly off, prompting the state’s top election official, Keith Ingram, to demand an explanation from the county on March 4. This led to the admission of thousands of missed ballots.

Sam Taylor, spokesman for the secretary of state, said the incident proved the value of the new requirement. “Anytime there’s a potentially changing number of votes for the election that aren’t being counted, that’s a serious oversight,” Taylor said.

But county officials said their own canvassing procedure would have caught the error before election results were certified this week, and they said pressure to release unofficial results within a day of the election had contributed to the error. The gap didn’t change any results at Harris or in statewide races.

“Make room for error – we’ve said that since they introduced SB1,” said Harris County Democratic Party chairman Odus Evbagharu. “That was the whole point of SB1 – to criminalize and penalize people for simple human error.”

Harris County Republicans seized on the mistakes. They said Democrats ‘intentionally mismanaged’ the primaries, called on Longoria to be fired, demanded the state take over the election for the remaining contests this year and filed a lawsuit claiming the mistakes were disempowering voters. Republicans of their rights. They also accused Hidalgo, who is seeking re-election this year, of “covering up” after also calling for Longoria’s resignation.

“You blamed Trump and you blamed partisanship,” Jack Cagle, a Republican county commissioner, said in Hidalgo during Tuesday’s town hall meeting. “What destroys trust are polling stations that don’t open, materials you can’t collect, long lines, delays and, even if found, 10,000 ballots polls that weren’t there when they were supposed to be there and were picked up later.

Officials won’t know exactly how many machines malfunctioned until the supplier, Hart InterCivic, is able to examine the equipment weeks after the election results are final. Election officials said Thursday that many machine problems were operator error, such as not plugging in a power cord, and that only 10 out of about 12,000 machines needed replacing on Election Day. Hidalgo on Tuesday announced plans to hire an independent consultant to look into what was wrong.

Additionally, Steven Sockwell, a Hart vice president, said at Tuesday’s meeting that the number of ballots that could not be electronically scanned, about 1,400, was small in proportion to the whole. of ballots cast – less than half of 1%. Amid a deluge of questions about why voters had to deal with two-page ballots and whether that was to blame for some of the difficulties, Sockwell also noted that there is still a ” learning curve” with the introduction of a new voting system.

“Going to paper was the problem, not two pages. It’s hard for a county the size of Harris to deal with such issues on such a large scale,” Sockwell said, noting that Harris County is Hart’s biggest customer — bigger even than two entire states, Hawaii. and Oklahoma, which his company serves. Sockwell pointed out that all 1,400 ballots had been counted by the end of the night.

Such nuances have been lost amid partisan rhetoric.

“Due to inexperience, incompetence and dishonest behavior, we had the worst election we’ve seen in 40 years in my lifetime in Harris County,” said State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R), co-author. of SB1. Bettencourt added that he intends to introduce more legislation in 2023 to prevent what happened in Harris County this year.

Republicans also criticized Longoria’s announcement that she would stay until July, to ensure continuity for the two upcoming elections, one in May and the other in June. Hidalgo said she plans to install a new administrator in time for the November general election.

Rodney Ellis, a Democratic member of the county commissioners’ court, said he thought the primary showed the value of SB1’s new disclosure requirements. Although he opposed SB1, he argued that Democrats’ emphasis on criticizing the law — even provisions that could improve election administration — is a mistake.

“The title of Senate Bill 1 must be that it is bad for democracy. This is a repressive bill,” Ellis said. “But there are pieces in there, little nuggets, that we should keep and keep using.”


Washington

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