Ahead of next week’s primary runoff elections, Harris County officials are recruiting county staffers to help speed up the results by picking up ballots at polling locations and driving them to the county’s central count location. Harris County was the last of the state’s largest counties to finish counting ballots in an election held earlier this month, even with assistance from law enforcement officers who took on delivery duties.
In the past, the responsibility of delivering the ballots has fallen to election judges, the final task at the end of their 15-hour day. Starting with the May 7 election, law enforcement officers with the Harris County Constables offices and the Harris County Sheriff’s Office picked up the ballots and made the delivery instead. The change didn’t do much to cut down on reporting time. While Dallas County and Tarrant County sent complete results to the state shortly after midnight, Harris County’s results came in around 9:37 a.m. Sunday, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s office.
This week, Harris County officials plan to train and deputize full-time county staffers from various departments to take on those delivery duties, as well. An email sent to county staffers on Tuesday from Harris County Administrator Dave Berry and Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria requested volunteers to help expedite the process.
“What’s required? Drive to a single polling location and pick up two sets of voting equipment, from both the Democratic and Republican sides, for the May 24th Primary Runoff Election. Return the equipment to NRG and be greeted with snacks, water, and a big THANK YOU for your service,” officials wrote in the email.
Each participating law enforcement officer or county employee will be assigned on average two polling locations, which will cut down by half the total number of cars lined up at central count at the end of the night, according to a spokesperson with the Election Administrator’s office.
While all Texas counties must comply with the state election code regulations — which were modified significantly when Senate Bill 1 went into effect last year — the Election Day ballot counting process varies considerably depending on the county.
At a May 11 hearing with the House Elections Committee, Tarrant County Elections Administrator Heider Garcia told lawmakers his county speeds up results by using multiple dropoff spots on Election Night, instead of one central count location.
“Because we are a large county, we use regional dropoff locations for the poll workers to deliver the materials to us. If we had 350 poll workers queued up outside our office, election night would become election week,” Garcia said.
Rep. Mike Schofield, a Harris County Republican, told Longoria and committee members he was alarmed by Harris County’s plans to deputize county staffers to make deliveries.
“I would be very, very troubled to find out in November that we were just deputizing whoever the elections office thought it wanted to deputize to go touch my election results and bring them to the central counting station,” he said. “So let’s make sure that we know what the law is and that we’re following it because that’s not kosher. Or at least doesn’t seem kosher.”
According to the story, Keith Ingram of the SOS office said he disagreed with Harris County’s interpretation of the law in question. He’s not a lawyer and that’s not an official pronouncement, but that sounds to me like it’s maybe not the best plan to pursue, as there could be unwanted consequences from it. I will say, it’s not clear to me why this would be illegal. I can’t think of any reason why trained county staff would be any less reliable or trustworthy than election judges, who had to be trained by the same election office people to do the same thing. Maybe this is just a quirk of the law if in fact it is not in compliance with it, maybe there was some nutball conspiracy theory reason for county election workers to be not on the sanctioned list of vote-equipment-deliverers, or maybe there’s a legitimate reason that I’m not aware of. All I can say is that at first glance it’s not clear to me why it should be off limits.
That said, rather than risk a confrontation over this, maybe the multiple dropoff points plan is better, as that seems to be how other counties do it. I will confess total ignorance here about why that might not work for Harris County. Maybe it’s just not a thing we’ve done before and so we don’t have a workable plan in place. I’d say one of the first questions we should be asking the next Election Administrator is what they think about this.
There’s also this:
The Harris County GOP is urging Republican election judges to break with Harris County’s election night plan for next week’s primary runoff, arguing the county’s ballot delivery protocol violates the law. Earlier this week, Harris County officials sent an email to county staffers asking for volunteer drivers to help expedite the ballot counting process for the upcoming primary runoff. With hundreds of polling locations spread out over 1,700 square miles, the state’s most populous county has a history of delayed election returns.
In hopes of speeding up election results, the Harris County Elections Administrator’s office also used this plan earlier this month in the May 7 election — deputizing law enforcement officials and full-time county staffers to deliver ballots from the polling location to the county’s sole central counting station. However, the Harris County GOP is pushing back on that plan and instructing Republican election judges to drive ballots to central count themselves.
While the Harris County GOP is opposing the county’s ballot delivery plan, in an email to the Chronicle, party chair Cindy Siegel outlined strategies they would support in order to speed up election results. Those included better tracking of equipment and improved training for staffers receiving ballots.
Their key recommendation: “Include multiple drop off locations around the county with livestream video of the drop off process.”
At the May 11 hearing, Tarrant County Elections Administrator Heider Garcia told lawmakers that’s the system they use to speed up results.
“Because we are a large county, we use regional drop-off locations for the poll workers to deliver the materials to us. If we had 350 poll workers queued up outside our office, election night would become election week,” Garcia said.
Under the tenure of former Republican County Clerk Stan Stanart, Harris County used four drop-off locations to count ballots. Stanart reassured voters the system of transmitting ballot counts was secure.
When the county clerk’s office flipped to Democratic control in 2018, the new County Clerk Diane Trautman intended to use multiple locations, as well, but scrapped the plan after the Texas Secretary of State’s office said the county would violate state law prohibiting the transmission of election results via the internet. Trautman told Commissioners Court in November 2019 she believed her system to relay results was legal, but rather than risk a lawsuit, Harris County would begin to count votes at a single location.
In this year’s primary election on March 1, Harris County used four drop-off locations to shorten the drive time for election judges, according to the Elections Administrator’s office spokesperson Leah Shah. She said they’ve returned to one drop-off location while trying to implement a program to reduce the need for multiple locations.
In response to the Harris County GOP urging judges to transport ballots themselves, Shah said the Elections Administrator’s office has sent out an email to GOP election judges notifying them that they can “opt in” to the county’s plan if they don’t want to drive the ballots themselves. Thirty-one GOP judges have opted in so far, according to Shah.
Someone is going to need to explain to me what Tarrant County is doing differently than what Harris County would have done under Diane Trautman’s plan. Having multiple dropoff locations makes sense to me, so let’s figure out what needs to happen from there and go forward with it. Make that a top priority for the next elections administrator. And again, election night reporting for the earlier May election was fine. If we have a similar experience on Tuesday night, that too will be fine.