The Texas Supreme Court on Tuesday set the stage for a legal fight over whether to count ballots Harris County voters cast during an extended hour of voting ordered by a lower court.
That lower court ordered that the state’s most populous county extend voting hours until 8 p.m. after several polling places were delayed in opening. The state’s highest civil court blocked that ruling and ordered Harris County to separate ballots cast by voters who were not in line by 7 p.m., the normal cutoff for voting in Texas. The Supreme Court’s order followed a request by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to reverse the lower court’s order. The Supreme Court posted the order on Twitter at 8:30 p.m.
It’s unclear how many votes were cast during the extra hour of voting, but Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee raised the prospect that the state would ask for those votes to be thrown out. The attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether they would pursue such action.
Voters who got in line after 7 p.m. were required to cast a provisional ballot, which the county had already said would take more time to process and would not be initially counted in election night returns. Harris County is home to nearly 2.6 million registered voters.
The order to keep polls open an extra hour at nearly 800 polling places came after the Texas Organizing Project sued Harris County, citing issues at numerous polling locations that opened more than one hour late Tuesday. Many Harris County voting locations also experienced voting machine malfunctions that caused delays and temporary closures throughout the day, the lawsuit claimed. The county did not fight the request for extra voting time.
“We didn’t oppose the original relief because we want to make sure every single eligible voter in Harris County has the chance to cast their ballot, and there were polling places that had some issues,” Menefee said. “But the Supreme Court of Texas will decide what happens here.”
In its request for extra voting time, the Texas Organizing Project argued the delayed openings violated the Texas Election Code because polling locations that opened after 7 a.m. would not remain open to voters for 12 hours. State law says polls must be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
In a court motion filed earlier Tuesday, the attorney general’s office argued that a county’s failure to open polls at 7 a.m. does not justify ordering them to remain open past 7 p.m.
“We went to court because these closures and errors, especially in communities of color across Harris County, robbed voters of the opportunity to cast their ballot,” said Hani Mirza, the voting rights program director at the Texas Civil Rights Project, which filed the lawsuit. “These folks got to the polls early, wanting to do their civic duty, and they would have were it not for these issues.”
Earlier in the day, a state district judge also ordered polling places to remain open an extra hour in Bell County in Central Texas. It is unclear if the attorney general’s office is also challenging that extension.
See here for some background, and here for a Twitter thread from the TCRP about their filing. At this point, I don’t believe any election is close enough to be potentially affected by however many provisional votes there could be. (I have no idea what that number is now, we’ll find out after the election is canvassed.) It would be nice to settle this as a matter of law and precedent, of course, and I would strongly argue that the voters shouldn’t be put in a position to be disenfranchised because of issues with a polling location – sometimes things go very wrong and it’s nobody’s fault – but I’m under no illusion that the Supreme Court will see it that way. Honestly, they’ll probably declare it moot once the provisional ballot numbers are confirmed, and that may be the best result we can hope to achieve. At least then there will be hope for the next time these things happen.
UPDATE: From the Chron:
Harris County officials declined to provide the number of voters who cast ballots during the extended period. The state’s highest civil court ordered these ballots be set aside until it issued a final ruling. In the meantime, all the votes during this period remain in legal limbo.
The Harris County district judge ordered that votes after the original 7 p.m. closing time be cast as provisional ballots, which are not counted until election workers confirm a voter’s eligibility.
Harris County Election Administrator Clifford Tatum declined to state how many ballots were cast during the extended period, but said Wednesday he didn’t believe any races would be affected by those provisional votes – or any provisional ballots left to count for other reasons.
“I don’t believe there are enough provisional ballots,” he said.
As of unofficial results, at least four district and county judicial races that flipped from Democrat- to Republican-held were close, separated by vote margins in the thousands and one as small as about 500.
As noted above, incumbent judge Dasean Jones is currently trailing by 465 votes, the closest countywide race. Jones won on Election Day with 50.24% of the vote. That means that if there are 10,000 provisional votes resulting from the problems with voting locations – this is, I want to emphasize, a huge over-estimate of the number of provisional ballots, but it’s a nice round number and will be nicely illustrative – and they vote at the same percentage for Jones, he’d have a net gain of 48 votes (524 to 476 for Jones). Of course, these problems occurred at specific locations which likely have more partisan characteristics – there’s no reason why they’d vote in exactly the same way as the county overall. Jones would need to win these 10K votes with 52.33% in order to pull ahead. If there are 5,000 provisional votes, he’d need to win them with 54.66% of the vote. If it’s 1000 provisional votes, it would need to be 73.3% of the vote. You get the idea. I don’t think it would be impossible for Dasean Jones to win with these votes, but unless those are extremely Democratic locations, the math is pretty challenging. For the candidates who lost by larger margins, even if those margins are tiny in absolute terms, it quickly becomes impossible to make up the ground. This is why recounts basically never change the outcome of even the closest elections.
UPDATE: There were still votes being counted when I wrote this. Looks like mostly mail ballots – there are another 1,116 of them in the latest report. County turnout is just over 1.1 million now. The bottom line, since mail ballots were much more Democratic than in person ballots, is that as of this writing Dasean Jones is now trailing by 165 votes, having closed the gap by 300. However, I think this is the end of that line. But if indeed there are a significant number of provisional ballots and they are mostly accepted, then the chances that Jones could edge ahead are greater than what the math had suggested before. I still think it’s unlikely, but it’s less unlikely now.