We’re just not allowed to have close elections anymore

That’s my takeaway from this.

A judge’s decision to order a new election in a close Harris County race from 2022 is putting election officials statewide on notice: Any type of error — large or small — has the potential to trigger a challenge and disqualify votes if the margins are narrow enough.

Some of the problems that prompted the judge’s order occur frequently around the state, especially in high-turnout elections, election officials told Votebeat. With the prospect of election outcomes being negated because of paperwork errors, they said, there’s now added pressure to train election workers and strictly follow procedure.

“We have been stressing the importance of paperwork needing to be filled out properly,” said Trudy Hancock, elections administrator in Brazos County. “We emphasize to our workers how important this is, that we get public records requests, and that we’re already being questioned about why something wasn’t done properly. We’re telling our workers that people are looking at this.”

In the Harris County judicial race in question, the original margin of victory was 449 votes. Judge David Peeples ruled that there were enough questionable votes to put the true outcome in doubt.

Peeples, a visiting judge from Bexar County who had upheld Harris County election results against other challenges, found that more than a thousand votes in Harris should not have been counted because, in most cases, there were deficiencies with two types of forms that some voters have to fill out at the polls.

One is a statement of residence form, filled out by voters who tell election workers at polling places that they have moved. The other is a reasonable-impediment declaration form, filled out by voters who don’t have proper identification and must explain why by listing an allowable reason.

In some cases, the voters filled out the forms with information that the judge found should have rendered them ineligible to vote. For example, the judge found that hundreds of voters wrote on the statement of residence form that they did not actually live in the county. Other forms were technically deficient because they were incomplete — in some cases entirely blank — or missing the signatures of the polling location supervisors, which are required.

Half a dozen election officials counties across the state told Votebeat that the problems with the forms are likely tied to insufficient poll worker training, which would be exacerbated by the loss of experienced poll workers. In almost every county, such problems loom especially large during midterm and presidential elections, when turnout is high.

“We need to make sure those forms are completed, that they’re reviewed before the voter is processed, because that didn’t happen in these cases,” said Bruce Sherbet, the elections administrator in Collin County.


To avoid being put on [the suspense] list, voters should update their voter registration information when they move. But many voters cast a ballot only every two years — during midterm and presidential elections — and they don’t always update their voter registration information promptly.

That leaves election judges and clerks at the polling site to deal with address discrepancies and review the forms. If it’s a statement of residence form, poll workers have to be familiar with their county’s geography and boundaries to ensure the addresses entered by the voter qualify them to vote in that polling location; they don’t have access to an automated way to verify that. If the election worker is reviewing a reasonable-impediment form, they also have to be versed on what’s required by law.

Poll workers on Election Day already handle many other prescribed tasks as well as unexpected issues, such as troubleshooting equipment. In Harris County, the third largest county in the nation, election workers are processing thousands of voters at some busy locations.

Harris County’s 2022 election was troubled in several respects. Less than three months before the election, the county hired a new elections director from out of state. Some polling locations had ballot paper shortages, malfunctioning equipment, and late openings that led to long wait times.

In a hectic environment, it is not unusual for things to get overlooked and for some of the issues Peeples pointed out in his ruling to fall through the cracks, Sherbet said.

“There’s no way to avoid this kind of thing,” Sherbet said. “And Harris is such a huge county, and so you’re going to have these kinds of situations occur in every election. Also because you have human beings that are handling this process and they make mistakes, and voters make mistakes.”

So you take complicated and frequently changing laws that are designed to make voting hard, a bunch of novice election workers, large turnout, limited time, all kinds of pressure, a close election, and a judge who doesn’t understand math, and this is what you get. It’s almost as if the whole thing is designed by a party that only cares about its own power to reduce faith in the democratic system.

In the meantime, Judge DaSean Jones remains on the bench, for now.

While Judge David Peeples ordered a new election for what was a narrow judicial race, his ruling didn’t strip Jones of his position — and it didn’t undo any of the myriad decisions Jones has made in innumerable cases that have come before him since he took office in January 2023.

That may not stop lawyers from trying to overturn the outcomes of cases over which Jones presided if there is a new election that ousts Jones, according to political observers.

“Nobody seems to know what exactly would happen to those cases,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston. “This is not a test that has a legitimate grounds of an appeal. I think we don’t know what precisely this would look like.”

But any potential challenges would be unprecedented — and likely become a question for the legal system to answer. And Peeples’ ruling was aimed squarely at how Harris County elections counted ballots in the race — not at anything Jones did.

“This is a pretty unprecedented situation, but I would be surprised if it was anything that affected any cases that he tried, as far as them being overturned or anything like that,” said Murray Newman, a defense lawyer who also serves as the president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association.


For Jones, another potential political wrinkle is a rule that limits judges from running for two seats at the same time, said Rottinghaus, the political scientist. Jones will be on the ballot in November for a seat on the Texas Supreme Court. It is not clear what would happen if the order for a new election for the district court’s judicial seat is upheld and also scheduled for November.

Boy, I forgot that he was running for Supreme Court, which he could normally do since this wasn’t a year in which he’d expect to be on the ballot otherwise. He’d be a strong favorite to win re-election if he had to be on the ballot for his District Court seat, but what about his statewide race? My guess is he’d have to choose one race or the other. If he manages to delay the question until after November – he could also win his appeal, which would be nice; I for one hope his lawyer brings up the math question in their appeal – then we’d have another weird countywide special election. For that one, I’d bet there’d be a lot more attention, at least. If it comes to that. Which I hope it doesn’t. But here we are.

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3 Responses to We’re just not allowed to have close elections anymore

  1. voter_worker says:

    “A judge’s decision to order a new election in a close Harris County race from 2022 is putting election officials statewide on notice: Any type of error — large or small — has the potential to trigger a challenge and disqualify votes if the margins are narrow enough.”

    Hasn’t this been the case all along? The Texas Election Code has included rules for challenges of election results for as long as I can remember. I’m not seeing why this is a new situation for election officials.

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