Fresh off last November’s midterm elections, Harris County Elections Administrator Clifford Tatum has implemented operational upgrades to the county’s system and vote collection process for presiding judges working at polling locations.
These changes have been in full swing as early voting for the May 6 election – which covers races for school board trustees, public infrastructure bond proposals and smaller county municipal leaders and mayors – started this Monday, April 24 and will end on Tuesday, May 2.
Tatum’s moved to alter the county’s procedures after some Republican candidates made claims of voter suppression that they said were due to paper ballot shortages at least 20 of the total 782 polling locations.
To avoid similar issues from reoccurring, the county has digitized its inventory system, moved from its old phone system to the software tracking system, ServiceNow, and designated several of its early voting polling locations as supply centers – locations where ballot paper or other election items that are needed can be picked up, according to Nadia Hakim, deputy director of communications for Harris County election administrator’s office.
Additionally, the county has designated six rally centers where presiding judges will go after they have completed their closing procedures; instead of having to drive all the way to a central downtown location as they did with NRG Arena in the last election.
Each judge will be assigned to one of the six locations; this is meant to make the unofficial results available to the public sooner, Hakim said.
Brandon Rottinghaus, University of Houston political science professor said that this election can be used as a trial run as it features local races on the ballot making it a smaller scale, lower stakes election.
“It is helpful for municipalities to start off with an election like this after they’ve made changes so it can give them a sense of where there might be some flaws and gives them an opportunity to fix them before they’ve got a groundswell of additional voters,” Rottinghaus said.
Dr. Benjamin Bannon, Manager of Training for Harris County Elections Administration, who prepares the presiding judges’ working polling locations, has been in close contact with the county to ensure that the changes implemented are processed and understood by the judges.
“We are given updates and information and what we do is make sure the training that we are delivering is accurate and communicated to everyone,” Bannon said.
He conducts four-hour long classes making sure the judges carry out procedures correctly, and also trains them to handle and interact with voters at the polls.
“We model training as to how we would like to operate at a voting center with accuracy and precision,” Bannon said. “We tell the judges that they are going to be met with individuals who know what they are doing and those who may need a few questions answered.”
Although these judges will not be traveling to a central location this time around, no other changes to how they are supposed to operate were made. The county usually updates their training curriculum ahead of every midterm election.
For small-scale elections like this one, Bannon trains around 2,000 judges, compared to larger ones, where he will train around 6,000.
I mostly note this because of the news that the Elections Office has implemented a trouble-tracking system, which had been notably absent before now and was a reason cited in the office’s post-election assessment as to why the facts were not fully established regarding the paper shortages. Both that story and this one from last November note that other large counties had implemented such systems years ago; the latter story says Dallas has had such a system in place since 2012. I note this because, of course, Stan Stanart was still running elections in Harris County in 2012. Indeed, he had another six years of running them before finally being voted out. So when certain people complain about how elections have been run in Harris County, it’s worth noting that elections were run in Harris County before 2020 as well. Maybe it’s taking awhile for the Elections office to get things all cleaned up, but there was a much longer period before that, which is what necessitated the cleanup in the first place.
UPDATE: I drafted this over the weekend, before the Senate passed bills to force Harris County to return election administration to the County Clerk and Tax Assessor and allow the SOS to order a new election in Harris County if more than two percent of voting locations run out of paper. (Which will get sued if it passes.) The weird and probably unhealthy thing is that I actually expected worse. Going back to the old two-office election management process is inefficient and just dumb, but we have a good County Clerk who used to run the elections herself, so it’ll be fine. And if there’s one thing I feel confident we’ll fix after the 2022 saga, it’s never underestimating the amount of paper ballots needed again. If this is all they do, all I can say is it could have been worse. Again, a screwed up way of thinking about it, but this is the kind of trauma that the Lege is inflicting these days.