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Texas investigating voting difficulties in Houston’s Harris County

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 11/16/2022 Molly Hennessy-Fiske
Campaign signs are posted in Houston on Oct. 18. © Cecile Clocheret/AFP/Getty Images Campaign signs are posted in Houston on Oct. 18.

HOUSTON — By 3:30 p.m. on Election Day, Cody McCubbin was down to the last of 1,200 paper ballots at the polling place he was running in suburban Cypress, frantically contacting counterparts at other locations for more.

“We were texting each other and saying, ‘Who’s running out of ballots?’ And we all were,” said McCubbin, 52, a financial manager at a pipeline company.

McCubbin, a Republican, said he had to shut down the polling place that he has run for the past four years for more than an hour, sending about 100 voters away. Election officials at other polling places provided him with 200 extra ballots at about 4 p.m., but they lasted only an hour, McCubbin said, before he had to turn voters away again.

“It disenfranchises everyone,” he said.

Similar problems across Harris County — a Democratic stronghold in a Republican-run state — have prompted outrage, especially among local and state Republicans.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has called for a criminal investigation by the state’s attorney general, secretary of state and Texas Rangers into “widespread problems” and “allegations of improprieties” in Harris County’s election. He noted that voting in the nation’s third-largest county — home to 4.8 million people — was plagued by understaffing, broken voting machines and paper ballot shortages, even though turnout was lower than county officials expected.

Abbott and other Republicans have claimed that the problem was especially acute in conservative areas, although complaints came from Democratic areas as well. Election results showed that some of the affected precincts were split on competitive races, including Abbott’s reelection.

“Voters in Harris County deserve to know what happened,” Abbott said.

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, a Democrat, has begun investigating possible criminal conduct during the election and on Monday requested assistance from the Texas Rangers, according to an email first reported by the New York Times and obtained by The Washington Post.

In the email, Ogg said her office had received a referral from the Texas secretary of state about “alleged irregularities” in the county that “potentially may include criminal conduct.” Sam Taylor, a spokesman for the secretary of state’s office, confirmed that it had referred complaints to Ogg’s office. Violations of Texas election code carry misdemeanor penalties for failing to provide election supplies.

“When we get credible complaints of election irregularities, we are statutorily required to investigate,” regardless of the complainants’ party affiliation, Ogg said in a statement. “… It is my duty as the elected district attorney to follow the evidence and follow the law, and I will.” She said results would be turned over to a county grand jury.

Monitors from the secretary of state, attorney general and U.S. Justice Department were stationed at Harris County polling places on Election Day. Aryele Bradford, a Justice Department spokeswoman, declined to comment on their findings. The Texas attorney general’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Harris County Election Administrator Clifford Tatum, hired in July after his predecessor resigned following voting problems in the spring primaries, said his office is cooperating with an audit by the secretary of state and “is currently reviewing issues and claims made about Election Day and will include these findings in a postelections report.”

On Monday, the Harris County Republican Party sued Tatum and the county in state court, alleging election code violations. The suit accused Democratic county leaders of suppressing the vote with poll closings, broken machines, incorrect ballot tabulation and ballot shortages in what party officials described as more than two dozen conservative-leaning precincts.

“We’ve seen what’s turned out to be a systemic cancer in how Harris County runs its elections,” GOP Chair Cindy Siegel said at a briefing.

Odus Evbagharu, the county’s Democratic Party chair, said a law passed by Republican state lawmakers last year requiring new voting machines, paper ballots, additional oversight and criminal penalties worsened the burden on local election officials, especially poll workers who were more hesitant to work. Still, Evbagharu expressed concern to Tatum about how the election was run, citing delayed poll openings and the shortage of paper ballots, problems that he said didn’t solely impact Republican voters.

“It’s something we’re definitely going to be looking at,” Evbagharu said.

A Republican campaign sign in Houston on Oct. 18. © Cecile Clocheret/AFP/Getty Images A Republican campaign sign in Houston on Oct. 18.

McCubbin said he has been contacted by the secretary of state’s office staff auditing the county and reported the problems he faced, including broken voting machines. A Trump supporter, he said he’s not an election denier, although he believes that Harris County officials intentionally withheld ballots because he was sent extra ballots only after a minority advocacy group successfully sued to extend voting by an hour because of delays — a decision that was later appealed by the state’s Republican attorney general.

“We have to believe we can turn this around at some point,” he said of voting problems.

Interviews with a half-dozen of those who directed polling places indicated widespread problems. The county has faced repeated voting issues over the past two years, including during the March 1 primaries, the first major vote under new state restrictions, when 10,000 mail ballots weren’t initially counted, voting machines failed and staff shortages occurred. Some critics have likened the failures on Tuesday to those cited in Arizona and Pennsylvania, although most voters nationwide experienced minimal problems and delays.

Harris County has 782 polling places spread across about 1,700 square miles, a space larger than Rhode Island. On Election Day, each polling place is run by a presiding judge — either the elected precinct chair, their designee or a county designee — from one party and a deputy from the other, assisted by clerks and other workers. Presiding judges earn $20 an hour, the rest $17 an hour. The county also had more than 160 technicians available to help with voting machines and other problems.

Lee Parsley, a Democrat, has worked the polls for more than 25 years, most recently at the county’s busiest location, in a community center near downtown Houston. There, a third of 60 voting machines didn’t initially work on Election Day. Parsley blamed “mistakes” rather than anything “nefarious,” particularly given the new paper ballot machines.

“Ours is one of the most complicated election processes in the country,” Parsley said. “It’s a lot of little pieces, and any piece can have a problem. … Everybody wanted more integrity in elections. But the reality is, paper ballots have consequences. They slow the process down.”

While about a third of Texas’s counties also had to use new voting machines, Parsley said, “Harris County has the most equipment, and we’re putting a lot of pressure on it.”

He said Tatum’s office should have pre-positioned paper ballots across the county, anticipating high turnout.

“They just miscalculated,” he said.

At 9 a.m. on Election Day, Terry Wheeler, a retired hospital administrator and Republican who has worked the polls for the past five years, was discouraged to find only 1,200 ballots left at his location at a suburban middle school west of Houston.

“It was clear to me that we were going to run out by afternoon,” he said, so he called the election office, and “they reassured me that we were going to have more sent out.”

But by 11:30 a.m., no one had arrived with more ballots, he said, and “we were getting to a crisis level.”

Wheeler again called the county election office, asked to speak with a supervisor and was repeatedly placed on hold. “They were blowing me off,” he said. By 2 p.m., Wheeler’s site ran out of ballots, and he had to turn 150 people away.

“I don’t know where those people went. I told them where the closest place to vote was, but I don’t know if they went there,” he said.

After 20-year U.S. Army veteran Lawren Johnson was turned away from a polling place in Houston’s Sunnyside neighborhood — overwhelmingly Democratic, like Johnson — because of malfunctioning voting machines, she posted a teary video on TikTok that went viral.

“There were old people standing in line, and this isn’t right. We got to do better. People should be able to vote,” said Johnson, who was ultimately able to vote after trying another location, then returning to the first one once machines were fixed.

At a polling place in Houston’s Heights neighborhood, where election results were almost evenly divided between the two parties, presiding judge Jennifer Kruse opened with just four of 20 voting machines working. When those four machines failed within 20 minutes, Kruse said, she had to turn a line of people away.

“We’re supposed to let everybody who is registered and legal to vote. And that didn’t happen. I was so defeated,” said Kruse, 58, a Republican lawyer.

County workers didn’t fix the machines until the afternoon, she said. By then, Kruse still had 10 boxes of 1,000 ballots each and watched as county workers delivered two more. She said that only about 750 people voted at her site and that she could have shared ballots with other polling places if she had known there were shortages.

Kruse said she supported former president Donald Trump but accepted the outcome of the 2020 presidential election and was hesitant to espouse baseless accusations about Harris County’s election. Some of the problems seemed “unintentional,” she said, but others needed to be investigated.

On Tuesday, she joined more than two dozen speakers — including fellow poll workers — condemning election mismanagement during a raucous county commissioners’ meeting. A Republican presiding judge in the suburb of Spring said she had to turn away 250 voters on Election Day, some of whom became so irate she feared for her safety.

“We had to call the cops because we were harassed by voters,” she told commissioners. “You put us in an unsafe position.”

Kruse grew so emotional as she spoke that her Apple Watch started sending her blood pressure alerts.

“Everything crashed,” she said, continuing her story even when the timekeeper cut her microphone off after the one minute of commentary each speaker was allowed.

Other speakers called for the election administrator’s resignation and a county audit, alleging fraud and a conspiracy to suppress Republican votes, without citing specific evidence. Some quoted scripture, including “Thou shalt not steal.” Others likened the county to Castro’s Cuba and Stalin’s Russia.

At one point, the gallery grew so rowdy that commissioners suspended the proceedings, threatening to have a bailiff escort people out or charge them with contempt.

“These claims and these issues are explosive,” said the county’s chief executive, Lina Hidalgo, a Democrat reelected with about 51 percent, or a margin of about 17,000 votes, after an expensive and competitive race. Hidalgo invoked the specter of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.

“That’s enough for the hollering and the extremist behavior,” she said, insisting, “It doesn’t seem there were many widespread, systemic issues.”

Tatum told commissioners that his office did the best it could with limited staffing and other resources. He said election officials were still processing provisional ballots and were expected to finish their count Thursday at the latest. Tatum said he was contacting every presiding judge to gather feedback so that he can submit an assessment of the election and “correct the things that did not work.”

Kruse left the meeting disillusioned. She does not intend to work the next election.

“They can go find some other schmo,” she said. “They don’t really want people who know what they’re doing.”

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