While the state is still trying to resolve questions about Harris County’s chaotic 2020 election, local election watchers report problems are continuing to plague the county’s voting process during this November’s election.

Longtime election integrity advocate Alan Vera, who heads the Harris County Republican Party’s Ballot Security Committee, says some mail-ballot processing issues were resolved after he reported them to the Texas secretary of state’s office.

But he says in-person voting equipment and ballot problems are ongoing, as are deficiencies in chain-of-custody documentation that is essential to verifying election integrity.

Unresolved Issues from 2020

For months, the secretary of state’s Forensic Audit Division has been scrutinizing Harris County’s November 2020 election as part of a larger audit of four key counties. A report on Phase 1 of the audit was released in December 2021, but Phase 2 stalled due to lack of cooperation from Harris officials.

On October 18, a week before early voting began, the Forensic Audit Division sent what Vera calls a “scathing” notice to Harris County Elections Administrator Clifford Tatum, previewing problems revealed by the audit and urging the county to correct them during the current election.

The “preliminary findings” documented in the letter include incomplete chain-of-custody records for ballots—primarily from the county’s “extralegal” drive-through voting locations.

“FAD has identified at least 14 locations where chain-of-custody documentation is lacking at best and missing at worst,” said Forensic Audit Division Director Chad Ennis.

The notice also identified polling locations where the number of voters checked in did not match the number of votes cast. One location showed 401 “excess” votes.

Vera says the chain-of-custody issues addressed in the SOS letter are “continuing in different forms” during early voting in the current election.

Other problems he noted include serious problems with scanning voted ballots (also an issue during the March primaries) and mandatory bond information not prominently displayed and available to voters at any of the early voting locations, even though there are bonds on the ballot.

New Staff and Equipment, Same Old Process Problems

A lot has changed in how Harris County administers elections since November 2020, including a new elections administrator and a new voting system that uses paper ballot backups. But the changes have created some new problems without resolving all of the old ones.

This is Tatum’s first election in Harris County, the most populous county in the state with more than 2.5 million registered voters.

Harris County hired Tatum in July to replace disgraced former Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria, who was forced to resign earlier this year after grossly mismanaging the March primaries.

On top of failing to finish counting ballots on time and failing to include 10,000 mail ballots in the count, Longoria’s long list of mistakes included failing to fix problems with the new equipment, as well as sending the wrong size ballot paper to multiple polling places. However, she continued to run Harris County elections through June, including May’s local elections and primary runoffs that saw more chain-of-custody failures.

Longoria was a partisan appointee hired in December 2020. She had no experience managing elections but was backed by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, a Democrat, and the Democrat-dominated county election commission tasked with selecting elections administrators.

Her predecessor Chris Hollins, another inexperienced political appointee, ran the November 2020 election that is still under investigation. Hollins was hired as a temporary replacement for the previous county clerk—a Democrat who fired experienced Republicans in the elections office after she was elected in 2018—while he was also serving as vice chair of the Texas Democrat Party. Hollins is now running for mayor of Houston.

Election Oversight

Ennis’ letter concluded by informing Tatum that the secretary of state’s office would be sending “a contingent of inspectors” to observe central count, “to ensure that Harris County establishes appropriate procedures and follows them.”

“These inspectors will perform randomized checks on election records, including tapes and chain-of-custody, and will observe the handling and counting of ballots and electronic media,” Ennis said.

He also said “election security trainers” from the SOS Elections Division would be present “to assist Harris County for the duration of the election period.” He added that a task force from the Texas attorney general’s office would “be available at all times during the election period in order to immediately respond to any legal issues identified by secretary of state, inspectors, poll watchers, or voters.”

Harris County officials responded by asking the Department of Justice to send federal election inspectors to the county (something the DOJ has done in the past), and forming their own “election task force” including the sheriff, constables, and the FBI.

“So, in Harris County, the mid-term election is being closely monitored by two state agencies, two federal agencies, two local law enforcement groups, and the Harris County Republican Party Ballot Security Committee,” said Vera.

Whether all those eyes on Harris County’s voting process will result in a more secure election remains to be seen.

Anyone who sees violations of Texas election laws can report them to the attorney general’s 2022 Election Integrity Team.

Early voting runs through November 4. Election Day is Tuesday, November 8.

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.