Let me start off by saying that my heart breaks for everyone in Uvalde. I cannot begin to fathom the pain and loss they are experiencing. I don’t know when we as a society will act to protect people from gun violence, but we cannot act quickly enough. We certainly didn’t for Uvalde, or Santa Fe, or El Paso, or any of too many other places to name.
For the subject that I wanted to be thinking about yesterday, we start with this.
Harris County voters are in for a long election night, with full election results in primary runoff races not expected until well into Wednesday. The night also could be politically turbulent as a dispute plays out over one line in the state’s election code.
One reason for the expected slow count Tuesday is the Harris County Republican Party’s decision to break with the county’s ballot delivery plan, according to Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria. After closing the polls, election judges will hand off ballots to law enforcement officers and deputized county staffers, who will drive the equipment to the central counting station at NRG Arena on the judges’ behalf. The Harris County GOP argues the plan violates state law, so they are advising their party’s election judges to drive the ballots to NRG themselves. The Texas Secretary of State’s office agrees with the GOP’s assessment.
An election judge is the person in charge of running a voting location. In a primary election, each polling location has one judge from each party overseeing their own party’s voting process. In the past, the responsibility of transporting the ballots to the counting station has fallen to these election judges, the final task at the end of their 15-hour day.
Despite the GOP’s criticism, at least 40 Republican judges are choosing to participate in the county’s plan.
The dispute seems to be more about politics than the law, Martin Renteria, a Republican election judge in Harris County, said. He has no problem trusting a law enforcement officer to deliver the ballots, especially in a primary election where a Republican candidate is going to win no matter what.
“A Republican is going to win during the primary election. It’s going to be Republican versus Republican,” Renteria said. “It’s just illogical to me, and this is a part of the story that nobody talks about.”
Under state law, ballots should be delivered by either the election judge or an election clerk designated by that judge.
At a May 11 hearing with the state House Elections Committee to address delayed election results, Longoria argued the plan utilizing law enforcement officers and deputized staffers is in compliance with Texas law.
“The election code does not speak to the delivery other than the presiding judge must turn over those election records to our election office. So it doesn’t speak to who has to drive to meet the other person to do so,” Longoria said.
The Texas Secretary of State’s office has disagreed with her interpretation and urged the county to change its plan.
“Harris County’s decision to allow volunteers to transport election records — including voted ballots — to the county’s Central Count location on Election Night is incompatible with the Texas Election Code and violates well-established chain of custody protocols spelled out under Texas law,” Texas Secretary of State spokesperson Sam Taylor said in a statement on Friday.
However, Gerald Birnberg, an elections attorney and General Counsel to the Harris County Democratic Party, questioned the Secretary of State’s logic, pointing out that its own office deputizes others to perform certain duties.
“The same way that the Secretary of State is deputizing these people in his office to speak on behalf of the Secretary of State on statutory matters, to perform his statutory duties, the elections administrator is deputizing individuals to carry out duties and responsibilities and functions that are otherwise prescribed to be discharged by the elections administrator,” Birnberg said.
The Harris County Elections Administrator’s office maintains the Secretary of State’s office knew about the strategy and raised no objections when they implemented the ballot delivery plan during the May 7 election.
In a statement, Longoria said: “In April, the EA’s Office discussed the May 7 law enforcement and county driver program with the Secretary of State’s Office’s Managing Attorney of the Elections Division, specifically requesting guidance and recommendations. The SOS raised no concerns, legal or otherwise, with the program. Further, the EA’s Office discussed the plan for both May elections with both political parties as early as April 7. Both parties had the opportunity to ask questions, review the chain of custody document, and raise issues. Neither party raised concerns.
In fact, the first time any concerns were raised occurred during a public meeting May 11 at the Election Committee Hearing by the Secretary of State’s Office. One week later, just six days from election day, the Harris County Republican Party notified us that its judges would not participate in the program.”
With voters walking into polling places and ballots set to arrive at NRG Arena in a few hours, Harris County’s Republican Party has challenged the process election officials will use to transfer ballots from locations to the central counting center, citing concerns with handing the machines over to anyone but precinct judges.
In the 18-page filing to the Texas Supreme Court around 2 p.m. on Tuesday, the local Republican party says despite assurances that election officials have it under control, state election law and past experience make them wary to hand over ballots to emissaries so they can ferry to a central location.
Cindy Siegel, chairwoman of the Harris County GOP, said officials are impeding on the democratic process.
“They are trying to make it as difficult as possible, and talking people out (of driving ballots themselves) by warning them there will be long lines,” Siegel said. “They are scaring people into creating this system that isn’t even legal.”
Lawyers for the GOP argue the county is ignoring state election laws and breaking the mandatory chain of custody for ballots.
“An essential component of the central counting station is the physical delivery of sealed ballot boxes and access to the central counting station is necessary (for) that process to take place,” the filing states.
The petition asks the high court to order Harris County to allow election judges to drive their own precinct ballots to the central counting center at NRG Park.
The request drew a fast rebuke from Democratic Party leaders and Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee.
“Their leadership has known about the County’s election day plans for some time, yet they waited until 6 hours before the polls close to now ask a court to throw the plans out the window and put residents’ votes at risk,” Menefee said in a statement. “And in their lawsuit, they flat out misrepresent the county’s plans to the court, making several statements that they know are demonstrably false.”
“(Longoria’s) office successfully used constables in the May 7 election, and the GOP had no problem at that time,” said Odus Evbagharu, chairman of the Harris County Democratic Party. “Now, someone wakes up on Election Day and suddenly thinks law enforcement officials and deputized election officers are an issue?”
Siegel said that is precisely why the GOP is suing.
It is the May 7 election, and widespread problems that day, that prompted the concerns in the first place. She said Republican judges only learned the day before that election that they would have to hand ballots over at polling sites, rather than drive them downtown themselves. In a handful of cases, no one came to pick up the ballots — leading the election judge to take them home — or couriers failed to drop them off in a timely manner. As a result, the county did not complete its count until Sunday morning, even though fewer than 115,000 ballots had been cast.
Again, I didn’t have a problem with the May 7 reporting. There’s clearly a difference of interpretation of the law here, and if that can’t be resolved on its own then a courtroom is the proper venue. I have a hard time believing that this couldn’t have been litigated before Tuesday afternoon, however. I started writing this post at 8 PM, and as of that time there had been no ruling from SCOTx. I don’t know when they plan on ruling, but at some point it just doesn’t matter.
UPDATE: It’s 10:30 PM, more than a third of the Tuesday votes have been counted, and I see nothing on Twitter or in my inbox to indicate that SCOTx has issued a ruling. So let’s think about this instead:
i know understandably literally nobody is in the mood to hear about primary runoff election night but i am at NRG arena & feel compelled to tell you that so many people are working very hard (here and across the state) to get votes counted tonight
— Jen Rice (@jen_rice_) 10:04 PM – 24 May 2022
Well said. Good night.
UPDATE: Here’s a later version of the story about the GOP’s lawsuit over the results delivery process. I still don’t see any mention of a decision being handed down. And for all of the fuss, final results were posted at 1:26 AM, which seems pretty damn reasonable to me. The midnight update had about 98% of ballots counted on the Dem side and about 95% on the GOP side – 70,016 of 72,796 Dem votes and 105,486 of 116,100 GOP votes. Seriously, this was a fine performance by the Elections Office.