Harris County Democrats on Thursday accused their Republican counterparts of excluding predominantly Black and Latino areas from a “disturbingly racist” map of proposed voting locations for the May 24 primary runoff, days after alleging the county GOP was purposely dragging its feet in submitting the map.
Republicans rejected the allegations, blaming the delay on a dispute with the county elections administrator over the number of polling places planned for the runoff. They contend the county has breached an agreement with the party in offering a total of 260 runoff polling locations, instead of the 375 used during the first round of voting on March 1.
The delay in approving the map threatens to trigger a cascade of problems, officials warn, in a county already known for its election mishaps.
Under Texas election law, both parties must approve the layout of voting locations in counties, such as Harris, that allow residents to visit any polling place, not just their assigned precinct. Typically a procedural hurdle that is resolved with little fanfare, the two parties have been hung up on this step for weeks, leaving the elections administrator’s office with a shortened timeline to recruit and train workers and set up voting equipment.
Harris County Democrats have accused their GOP counterparts of “willfully delaying the planning process in order to create turmoil that will further erode confidence in our democratic elections.”
Republicans say those allegations are false, noting that a party official emailed the county on March 31 — a week after the elections office sent the GOP a proposed list of locations — to inquire about the smaller number of voting locations.
In a letter to the Harris County Attorney’s Office last week, Steven Mitby, an attorney representing the county GOP, wrote that operating fewer polling places “will have the effect of disenfranchising voters and making the voting experience more difficult.” He argued the county is legally bound, under a contract with the party, to operate the same number of runoff voting locations that it had during the March 1 primary.
The elections administrator’s office, meanwhile, has said the 260 polling places would be more than double the 109 operated by the county during the 2020 primary runoff election, the first runoff under the countywide voting system that allows people to vote outside their home precincts. In the 2016 and 2018 runoffs, the county provided 78 and 89 voting locations, respectively, according to the elections administrator’s office.
The GOP proposal, [the HCDP] said, does not contain any polling places in an area enclosed by Texas 288, Interstate 45 and Loop 610, which includes Third Ward, Riverside Terrace, Texas Southern University and the University of Houston. The map also does not include voting locations in Sunnyside or near Hobby Airport.
Other areas that would go without polling places under the GOP map include Trinity Gardens and swaths of east and northeast Houston that, like the other areas, are predominantly made up of Black and Latino residents.
“The Harris County GOP’s proposed list of polling locations, if adopted as presented, would be a violation of the Federal Voting Rights Act,” Rob Icsezen, deputy chair of the Harris County Democratic Party Primary Elections Committee, said in a statement. “This list of locations is a bad faith first step from Republicans in a process that should have started weeks ago.”
The HCDP press release about this, which includes images of the proposed locations by each part, is here. You can judge for yourself. I’m a partisan Democrat, so I’m not going to try to convince you that I’m impartial about this. I will say, turnout in primary runoffs is almost always much lower than in the primaries (the 2012 Republican runoff for US Senate is the main exception to this), and in the pre-voting centers days it was quite common for multiple precinct locations to be combined, making the total number of locations smaller. It seems to me that maybe we’d all benefit from there being a more objective set of criteria for this, with a default option for the counties’ elections offices in the event that one party or the other fails to meet a deadline. Something to incentivize agreements in a timely fashion, with protection for the out party from being pushed around by the party in charge. I confess that I don’t know a whole lot about this aspect of the process, so maybe we already have that and this is mostly chest-thumping. I’d just like this to be settled in a sensible and equitable manner so we can get the rest of the details worked out.