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So what happened with the election returns?

The County Clerk puts the blame on the Secretary of State.

Diane Trautman

Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman said a last-minute directive from the secretary of state caused significant delays in reporting election results on Tuesday evening.

Trautman said an Oct. 23 election advisory, issued after early voting had begun, required the county to change its counting process. The clerk’s office had originally planned to tally results at 10 sites spread across Harris County, and report them to a central headquarters via a secure intranet connection.

The state advisory, Trautman said, forced the county to abandon that plan and instead count results from each of the 757 voting centers at the clerk’s downtown Houston office.

“Our office is as frustrated as everyone else because of the state’s decision,” Trautman said in an email late Tuesday evening.

[…]

This was the highest-turnout election to date in which Harris County used its new countywide voting system, where residents can visit any polling station on Election Day, instead of an assigned precinct.

Voting appeared to go smoothly across the county on Tuesday, with the exception of some voters receiving incorrect ballots at three polling stations. The clerk’s office said election workers were to blame for the errors.

I will engage this argument, but before I do let’s keep something in mind: The vast, overwhelming majority – like, 99% plus – of Harris County voters had no idea any of this was happening, and if they did know they wouldn’t have cared much. If they watched any election coverage Tuesday night, when they went to bed they knew Mayor Turner and Tony Buzbee were headed for a runoff, they knew the Metro referendum was going to pass, and they knew who was winning in their Council and HISD districts. Only a handful of people – reporters, candidates and campaign staffers, and some diehard nerds, a group that certainly includes me – cared that there wasn’t more than that. We’re talking a few dozen people on Twitter, max. Put the pain and suffering of this group of very special interests – again, a group that includes me; I was up till 2 AM on Election Night, obsessively hitting Refresh on harrisvotes.com like all those other chumps – up against the fact that no one in this higher-turnout-than-expected election complained about long lines or not being able to vote at all because they were at the wrong location, and tell me which matters more. Stan Stanart was bad at his job not just because he had a lousy track record of administering elections, but because he was an active impediment to engaging voters and encouraging participation. We’re way better off without him no matter what time he might have had returns up.

So that’s Diane Trautman’s explanation, and it may well be fully fair and accurate, but it’s all we got from that story. The Trib adds to what we know.

In past elections, results from individual precincts where taken to several drop-off locations around the county, which fed the tallies to the central office. This time, however, the electronic ballot cards with vote counts from individual precincts had to be driven from polling sites — some of them nearly 40 minutes away; some still running an hour after polls closed — into downtown Houston for tallying to begin. Just a quarter of returns had been reported right before midnight. A complete set didn’t come in until nearly 7 a.m. Wednesday.

“This was a painstakingly manual process that amounted to only one person processing [results] cards at a time where we could have had one person at each of the 10 drop off locations submitting electronically with our original plan,” Diane Trautman, the Harris County clerk, said in an email Wednesday morning. “The contingency plan we were forced to use was only meant to be used in case of natural disaster or power outage.”

The county switched to the more cumbersome process after an election advisory issued by the Texas Secretary of State’s Office days into the early voting period forced it to ditch its usual practice of sending returns to “rally stations” throughout the county to be downloaded.

Harris County had used a similar system for years, plugging memory cards, known as “mobile ballot boxes,” into specific readers at the rally stations and transmitting the vote tallies to a central office through a secure phone line, according to county officials. As it had in the May municipal election, the county was planning to use a secure encrypted internal network this time around.

But citing security worries, the secretary of state’s advisory required the county to make copies of those memory cards if it wanted to transmit the data over encrypted lines. The originals could be processed directly at the main office.

Though the advisory was issued on Oct. 23, election officials in Harris and other counties said they weren’t made aware of it until several days later. By then, county officials said, it was too late for the county to purchase the equipment needed to make copies.

“We could’ve done that if there had been more than 13 days warning,” said Douglas Ray, a special assistant county attorney in Harris County. “It was just too short a period of time to get from point A to point B and pull this off in the way we intended to do it.”

Instead, the county turned to a contingency plan that included law enforcement escorts transporting ballot box memory cards from each polling site to the central counting station. The effort was further delayed when more than half of the county’s 757 polling places were still running at 8 p.m. as voters who were in line when polls closed finished casting their ballots.

In the aftermath of the Election Day mayhem, Harris County officials said they plan to get technology in place to resume using “rally stations” in the next election. They wonder why the secretary of state’s decided this year to object to a process long in place.

Ray says Keith Ingram, the state’s director of elections, told county attorneys during a conference call this week that Harris County’s procedures have actually been out of compliance with state law for a decade. Ray said state officials told him and other lawyers on the call that the secretary of state’s office was “compelled to issue” its advisory ahead of Tuesday’s election after facing external pressure from the Harris County GOP.

That tells us a lot, and the complaint from the Harris County GOP shows there was a political element to this. I mean, if this practice had been standard while Stan Stanart was Clerk, then what other reason is there for pushing a complaint now that he’s not except to make the new Clerk look bad? We still don’t have an official statement from the SOS, so there may well be more to this, but what we know now adds a whole other layer on top of this.

As to what the Clerk was doing, it sure sounds like they were planning to use a VPN connection to transmit the data. Encrypted VPNs are standard practice in enterprise security, and on its face should have been perfectly acceptable for use here. (It’s possible that the relevant state law that apparently forbade this is outdated, which may also explain why there had been a laissez-faire attitude towards it in the past.) From a practical perspective, this sounds fine, but the fact that it was not compliant means it was a risk, and we see what happened as a result.

Maybe they’re all still asleep, but I didn’t see any response to this story from the Twitter complainers about it when it came out on Wednesday afternoon. We still need to know more – what the SOS was thinking, why there was a delay in the Harris County Clerk getting this advisory, what the substance was of that GOP complaint, what other counties were in the same boat and how they handled it, etc etc etc – and so we need Commissioners Court to do a full and transparent interrogation of what happened, why it happened, and what we will do to make sure that the next elections – not just the December runoff but the massively larger 2020 primaries and general – don’t suffer from the same problems. Let the Commissioners and Judge Hidalgo ask Trautman and her staff all the questions, and don’t stop till everyone has the answers they’re seeking. The stakes are too high to do otherwise.

I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater here. The voting centers, as places to actually vote, worked great. The same bitchy Twitter conversation that moaned about the non-existent returns also credited them with maybe increasing turnout. Remember how many provisional ballots used to be cast in these elections, which was in part due to people voting at the wrong location? We won’t have any of that this time, and that’s a very big deal. But no one foresaw this possibility, and that failure led to the massive delays we experienced, which completely overwhelmed those positives. We need answers to all the remaining questions, and we need a more thorough plan for the next time, because a second performance like this one just cannot happen.

UPDATE: One more thing:

Accountability matters, and so far at least only party in this drama has been accountable.

UPDATE: The SOS finally speaks.

Keith Ingram, director of elections for the secretary of state, directed a reporter to an agency spokesman and hung up.

Ingram later shared an email he sent Wednesday evening to Houston Democratic State Sen. Carol Alvarado, in which he said Harris County ignored state law that prohibits counties from connecting voting systems to external networks such as an intranet. Alvarado on Monday asked for clarification of the election advisory.

“The clerk was planning to use this risky method of results reporting even though they were fully aware it was illegal to do so, and with apparent disregard to the fact that the intelligence community has repeatedly warned election officials since 2016 of the continuing desire of nation states to interfere with our election process,” Ingram wrote. He also told Alvarado he had explained the state’s rules about vote counting systems to a Harris County Clerk’s representative on Oct. 2.

I would question the “risky” assertion. The legality is a separate matter, though enforcement has seemingly been inconsistent. There are still a lot of questions to be answered here.

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5 Comments

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  2. voter_worker says:

    “I will engage this argument, but before I do let’s keep something in mind: The vast, overwhelming majority – like, 99% plus – of Harris County voters had no idea any of this was happening, and if they did know they wouldn’t have cared much.” To add to your point, nobody cares about the election administrators and workers who have to do what they do over very long hours over multiple weeks and months, and I suspect that nobody outside of your immediate family cares that you felt you had to stay up until 2am. Nobody cares that the twitterati were displeased. A few might care that people with agendas are using this event to attempt to make hay while the sun shines. I personally do care that the Trib hysterically characterizes a process that worked, albeit more slowly than some would have liked, as “Election Day mayhem”. That this “glitch” has overshadowed the tangible improvements is a travesty brought on by a very small group of people with axes to grind.

  3. Manny says:

    Totally agree with Voter_worker.

  4. Maria Gonzalez says:

    As someone who runs a precinct, I am very pleased with the response by our county team. The initial demand from the Secretary of State would have required me as a precinct judge to get a police escort and take my ballots to one place only, downtown. Myself and 756 other judges would have had to get downtown and not to our closer drop off sites. The process developed by the county to meet this newly politically motivated demand by the SOS (or SOB, as I call them) was clearly a negotiated process that got the election results in a secure way as demanded by the SOB. Yes, results being announced were delayed, but I do not even want to think what would have happened if 757 judges had tried to go downtown at about 8 or 9 pm on election evening. I for one applaud our County Clerk.

  5. PJ44 says:

    Agreed. It was a long day as it was, and if I had had to deal with the central location, well I would never work another election!