That’s my takeaway from this.
On Election Day last year, an unusual problem occurred around 6 p.m. — the polling place at El Lago City Hall ran out of paper ballots.
Republican presiding judge Chris Russo, the election worker running the polling location in the far southeast corner of Harris County, said he had been calling the county elections office’s hotline for more than three hours to request more paper. Russo said he told the 40 or so voters waiting in line that they had a few options.
“If you stay in line, you will vote today,” he recounted telling them. “But if you think you can make it to another polling location that has ballot paper and you think that is a better use of your time, you are free to do so.”
When the county finally delivered more paper at 9 p.m., only a handful of people remained and were able to vote.
El Lago was one of about 20 polling locations in Harris County that ran out of paper on Election Day, according to a Houston Chronicle review of county data and interviews with dozens of poll workers. That is a tiny fraction of the 782 polling places across the sprawling county that day.
Now, the ballot shortages in Harris County are placing local election officials at the center of a legal showdown and a raging political debate in Austin as the GOP-controlled Legislature is trying to move urgently to strip local officials of the power to oversee elections. County election officials also face scrutiny from lawsuits filed by 22 local Republican candidates who lost and a separate suit by Houston furniture mogul Jim McIngvale. One of the lawsuits, involving a Texas House race was dismissed by Speaker Dade Phelan in January.
A Houston Chronicle examination of election data found that while there were problems and technical glitches, there remains no evidence voters were systematically disenfranchised. Nor is there evidence the Election Day issues prompted people not to vote in numbers great enough to change the outcome of any of the races being contested.
Nonetheless, without all the facts being known, bills filed in Austin this year could make it easier for the state to order new elections, strip the county’s oversight and authority to conduct elections. They would also add criminal penalties for running out of ballot paper, create a team of state marshals to investigate election code violations and file criminal charges, and abolish the county Elections Administrators office.
The remaining lawsuits filed by 21 local Republican candidates include one from Republican Alexandra del Moral Mealer, whose bid to oust incumbent County Judge Lina Hidalgo fell short by more than 18,000 votes. These candidates are asking judges to overturn the results and order new elections. Most of those candidates lost their races by 12,000 to 29,000 votes, according to official county results.
The argument made in most of those lawsuits is that Election Day problems, including ballot paper shortages and technical issues that delayed the opening of some polls, resulted in polling locations turning away thousands of voters whose ballots could have changed the outcome of those races.
It is impossible to know if or how many people at El Lago City Hall, let alone countywide, did not vote because of paper shortages or other technical or equipment malfunctions.
Harris County uses a countywide voting system, meaning voters could cast ballots at any of 782 polling locations on Election Day instead of being restricted to their home precincts. Voters turned away from one location could go to another polling place, typically about a mile away.
To win, the plaintiffs would need to prove that voting irregularities affected the election results.
That could prove a high bar to clear.
Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, said the challenge will be proving that people intended to vote but could not.
“If they ended up voting, it’s clear that it wasn’t so onerous that they weren’t able to effectively overcome it,” he said.
Twenty locations is quite a bit fewer than what I had previously seen in mostly Chron stories. It’s also a lot lower than the 121 locations claimed to have had problems by a KHOU story that I missed, which according to this companion story is the basis for a lot of bullshit claims and bad bills. What continues to be missing from all of these articles are the names and stories of people who were actually unable to vote as the result of any paper shortages. Which is still the only thing that matters as far as the contested elections go.
Go read both stories, they’re well reported and quite informative. The first one does a good job of showing where voting slowed down or stopped as a result of paper outages; in all cases, there were just more people showing up at that location than there had been paper to begin with. That kind of missed guess about Election Day turnout is a tale as old as time, and had we still been using the old non-paper machines, no one would have noticed. This story has been blown so far out of proportion it’s hard to even recognize it. See reporter Jen Rice’s Twitter thread for more.
UPDATE: While I don’t think this bill to ban county voting centers on Election Day will get through the House, it must be noted that if it does and there are problems of any kind on Election Day that affects the ability to vote, the people at the affected locations will be well and truly screwed. It’s paranoid bullshit all the way down.