Ballot-counting mistakes in last week’s Super Tuesday primaries are raising more questions about the competence of a Democrat election official in Texas’ second-most populous county.

Days after the counting was finished, Dallas County Elections Administrator Toni Pippins-Poole discovered “discrepancies” between the number of voters accepted to vote and the number of ballots received at central count for various polling places across the county.

Pippins-Poole then had to petition a state court to order a partial recount of the county’s March 3 primary so she could find the votes that were “unaccounted for” in her original tallies.

The Democrat official filed the petition Friday night. Judge Emily Tobolowsky, also a Democrat, approved the recount request on Tuesday.

On Wednesday morning, Pippins-Poole will recount paper ballot backups from 44 voting machines, hoping to reconcile the counting errors. The recount will take place at the Dallas County Elections Department office with representatives of both parties observing.

Pippins-Poole’s errors stemmed from thumb drives that were supposed to be returned by election judges after closing their polls.

New voting machines bought by the county last year use the thumb drives to store voters’ ballots electronically inside each precinct’s tabulators. The machines also store the marked paper ballots that voters scan into the tabulators, which are used for audits and recounts.

In court Tuesday, Pippins-Poole said ballot totals recorded on thumb drives from 44 tabulators used at 38 locations either didn’t match the number of voters who checked in to vote or were turned in after counting was finished.

“Of the 44 thumb drives, 16 were not received in a timely manner to the Elections Department and 28 were from voting machines not scheduled to be used but were used by volunteer election officials,” she said in a statement Saturday attempting to explain the mistake.

A total of 773 tabulators were used at 454 countywide polling places on Election Day. Each tabulator contained two thumb drives, a primary and a backup. Election judges were supposed to turn in both thumb drives to one of 13 regional collection sites.

The majority of the votes in question were reportedly cast in the Democrat primary and are not expected to change the outcomes of any races.

About 317,000 of the county’s 1.3 million registered voters cast ballots in the primaries.

Pippins-Poole’s office conducted the primary elections under contracts with Dallas County’s Democrat and Republican parties. State law requires county parties to canvass their elections by March 12.

A History of Complaints, But Not Accountability

Not everyone is convinced a recount resolves the problem.

“We need to investigate this entirely, immediately,” Dallas County Commissioner J.J. Koch told local media outlet WFAA this week. “The time has absolutely come for Toni Pippins-Poole to step down as elections administrator.”

Pippins-Poole has headed Dallas County’s Elections Department for almost 10 years, since the county’s Democrat officials ousted widely respected administrator Bruce Sherbet and installed the longtime friend of County Commissioner John Wiley Price. Sherbet now heads Collin County’s elections office.

Under Pippins-Poole’s direction, Dallas County elections have been the subject of multiple mail-ballot fraud investigations, including allegations that some elections department employees were involved in the schemes. A number of complaints have charged her office with misconduct for failing to follow proper procedures. She was even caught soliciting cash donations from vendors.

Voters again questioned Pippins-Poole’s competence when they discovered the electronic poll books she purchased last year didn’t work securely and had to be replaced. That mistake could cost taxpayers $6 million unless the county can recoup the loss from the vendor, and it shook voters’ confidence.

Koch told Texas Scorecard until Pippins-Poole is held accountable for her poor performance, public confidence in Dallas elections will continue to drop. 

Before he was elected in 2018, Koch filed a lawsuit asking a district court to remove Pippins-Poole for incompetence and official misconduct. He said the county officials tasked with oversight of the elections department, mostly Democrats, weren’t interested in taking any action against Pippins-Poole. Koch is the lone Republican on the court.

Koch said Pippins-Poole’s rush to implement countywide vote centers, which the county first tried in November, contributed to recent mistakes.

The resignation of the county’s assistant elections administrator Robert Heard just one week before Super Tuesday may also have added to Pippins-Poole’s primary woes.

A shortage of experienced, trained poll workers created more confusion on Election Day, and Dallas residents who served at the polls have told Texas Scorecard the county’s election worker training was inadequate.

The primaries were the last opportunity for poll workers to use the new voting equipment and procedures before November’s high-turnout presidential election.

Dallas residents wondering how Pippins-Poole has kept her job all these years can look to their county election board, a group of five local elected officials tasked by state law with appointing an elections administrator: County Judge Clay Jenkins, County Clerk John Warren, Tax Assessor-Collector John Ames, and the chairmen of Dallas County’s Democrat and Republican parties. Jenkins, Warren, and Ames are all Democrats who have held office for a decade or more.

Terminating an elections administrator requires a four-fifths vote of the election board and approval by a majority of county commissioners.

Democrat Mistakes in Harris County

Another Democrat election official, Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman, is also drawing fire for mismanaging her county’s March 3 primaries. Trautman is in charge of conducting elections for over 2.2 million registered voters in the state’s most populous county.

Trautman’s troubles started during early voting, when voters and poll workers discovered her office had loaded the wrong voter data into the county’s electronic poll books.

Her mistakes continued through election night, when voters at some Harris County polling places waited hours in long lines caused by her office misallocating voting machines.

The Democrat official initially blamed Republicans for the long lines but later admitted she and Michael Winn, her director of elections, were responsible for the election-night fiasco that captured national media attention.

“[W]e take full responsibility for the long lines and wait times,” Trautman said in an official statement three days after the primary.

Trautman hired Winn after taking office in January 2019, following a purge of her Republican predecessor’s elections office staff. Winn formerly managed elections for Travis County’s Democrat county clerk.

As in Dallas, Houston-area residents and officials warned Harris County wasn’t ready to implement countywide vote centers.

Unlike Pippins-Poole, Trautman is an elected official, directly accountable to the voters—but not up for re-election until 2022.

At Tuesday’s Harris County Commissioners Court meeting, Trautman said it was time to “move on to November.”

If significant changes aren’t made in the coming months by these two Democrat election officials, Texas’ biggest counties will face even bigger problems in November.

Erin Anderson

Erin Anderson is a Senior Journalist for Texas Scorecard, reporting on state and local issues, events, and government actions that impact people in communities throughout Texas and the DFW Metroplex. A native Texan, Erin grew up in the Houston area and now lives in Collin County.