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With early voting in Texas’ March 3 primary in full swing, the top election official in the state’s largest county is embroiled in yet another controversy—this one involving an alleged attempt to squelch free speech about voting system problems and her office’s mistakes.

On the opening day of early voting last Tuesday, voters and poll workers at multiple locations across Harris County discovered the county’s electronic poll books contained the wrong voter registration and mail-ballot data.

Alan Vera, the chairman of the Harris County Republican Party’s ballot security committee, reported the problems to the county elections office later that day and warned they could allow voters to vote twice. FOX 26 Houston ran a story featuring Vera’s concerns, as did The Texan.

On Saturday, Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman, who is in charge of conducting elections in the county, issued a directive to all early voting poll workers, telling them not to speak to anyone from the media.

Trautman’s office sent the message via the county’s electronic poll book system, followed by phone calls to both parties’ presiding judges at every early voting location.

“The only communication you should have with the media is to tell them that you have contacted Outreach so that someone can assist them,” the message read, referring to the county clerk’s Voter Outreach office.

Harris County Republican Party Chairman Paul Simpson responded Monday with a letter demanding Trautman retract the anti-free speech directive.

He said Republican primary election workers are free to speak with media outlets “as long as any such discussions do not interfere with a positive experience for the voters.”

Simpson reminded Trautman the party is in charge of the primary election; the county clerk is conducting the election under a contract with HCRP:

“Your directive suppressing the free speech rights of election workers was never cleared or approved by me or the Republican Party.

 

“Your directive infringes on the First Amendment rights of all election workers. … [Y]our directive attempts to silence election workers from publicly reporting issues with your voting systems and seeks to prevent the media from accurately reporting on the election process and integrity.”

In a follow-up letter sent to Trautman today, Simpson added:

“You have tried to justify your acts by calling poll workers “government employees.” But as you well know, they are independent contractors–not government employees.”

Vera also believes Trautman’s instructions are aimed at squelching public discussion of mistakes made by the elections office that he and others brought to light.

His detailed reports of the county clerk’s data issues—including registered voters not in the e-poll books, voters listed at wrong addresses, and mail-ballot voters not flagged in the database—prompted Michael Winn, elections administrator under Trautman, to investigate. A day later, Winn told Vera his team found the cause was a “sync issue,” which they then had fixed.

Trautman’s office confirmed to the Secretary of State that the county had been using the wrong voter data, but Trautman maintains no voters voted twice.

Vera says early voting data found on the county clerk’s own website shows primary voters who voted both in person and by mail, as well as voters who submitted more than one mail ballot.

“Until voters pointed out these problems, we were running our elections with the wrong database,” Vera told Harris County Commissioners Court yesterday. “It appears some voters took the opportunity to vote twice.”

“If I’m a voter in Harris County and I’m seeing this data, I’m wondering what’s going on with the election integrity,” he added.

He and others are skeptical the early voting ballot board, which reviews mail-in ballots, will be able to catch all duplicate votes.

“Voters continue to have real concerns about the integrity of the voter roll,” State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R–Houston) said in a statement to The Texan. “What has happened in County Clerk Trautman’s office in this case is not a partisan issue, but a competence issue that has affected early voters in the November election and now again in the Primaries.”

Trautman, a Democrat, was elected in 2018. Since then, she has implemented a number of controversial changes to county elections, including a move to countywide vote centers that Simpson and others warned the county wasn’t ready to roll out securely.

Rocky rollouts of these changes, along with other voter registration issues, continue to concern election integrity advocates.

Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Ann Bennett, who serves as the county’s voter registrar, is embroiled in a federal lawsuit over her refusal to allow public inspection of voter roll data, as required under a transparency provision of the National Voter Registration Act. For two years, she has fought in court to hide public records of noncitizens found on Harris County voter rolls. Bennett, also a Democrat, is up for re-election this year and is facing two primary challengers; the winner will run in November against Republican Chris Daniel.

Primary voters or election workers who experience any voting issues should immediately contact their local elections office and the party officials in charge of their primary. Early voting runs through February 28. Election Day is Tuesday, March 3.