By all accounts, Harris County pulled off a smooth local election last week under its newly reconfigured election administration. But officials didn’t have time to revel in it before a judge took them to task for the serious mistakes that marred its election one year ago.
Nonetheless, Harris County officials say they believe they’re now on a path to deliver a successful 2024 presidential election under a new election chief, County Clerk Teneshia Hudspeth, and are clear-eyed about the work they still have to do.
The problems last year in Harris — the third most populous county in the country — were not unprecedented or large in scale, but the long wait times and the ballot paper shortages at about 20 polling locations could have been avoided with better planning, experts say. Harris County provides voting on Election Day through countywide vote centers, which allow voters to go to any location to cast a ballot, unlike a precinct-based system. At these vote centers, each voter’s ballot is printed to reflect the local races based on where they live.
Bruce Sherbet, Collin County elections administrator, who has been running elections in Texas for over two decades said, to be on the safe side, it is best practice to plan for more than just the additional 25% supply of ballot paper that the election code mandates.
“You have to go at least 50% over that number. You just can’t take the risk of running low. And if you do run lower, you’ve got to have a really robust and good training curriculum to tell your workers to monitor their stock,” he said.
By the time the November 2022 general election came around, the county elections office had already seen its first leader step down, voters were still getting used to new equipment, and the then–newly appointed election administrator, Tatum, had less than three months to prepare. Logistical problems surfaced.
“The elections office had too many Election Day voting centers [in 2022], relative to the resources they had available,” said Bob Stein, a political science professor at Rice University who has done research into election supply allocation and vote centers. “And the biggest problems were at the newest voting locations where there was no history of voting.”
The primary and presidential election will rely on the county’s ability to train what is likely double the number of election workers and run many more polling locations, and based on the county’s performance this off-cycle election year, it may be positioned to do that well in 2024, Stein said.
The problems last year in the heavily Democratic county prompted Republican state lawmakers to pass legislation abolishing the elections administrator position — only in Harris. The county sued the state to prevent it from taking effect, but couldn’t beat back the new law.
Despite the county’s effort to challenge the law in court, it went into effect on Sept. 1, placing Hudspeth in charge of administering elections and Ann Harris Bennett, the county’s tax assessor-collector, in charge of voter registration heading into the presidential election. Lawmakers have signaled they’re watching closely.
That doesn’t mean I think it was a mistake to switch to an Elections Administrator. Many counties use them, there’s nothing particularly controversial about that. If you were designing county government from scratch, I can’t imagine you’d separate the tasks of voter registration from conducting elections – you would of course put them under the same office. Isabel Longoria didn’t work out, Cliff Tatum had a very short initiation period before the November 2022 election, and we were breaking in these new machines with the more complicated process and equipment. There were challenges and we should have done better, but it didn’t have to work out this way.
As it happens, this past week was when SCOTx heard the appeal of the original injunction that blocked the law abolishing the Harris County Elections Administrator’s office, which SCOTx put on hold pending said appeal. At this point, given everything that has gone on, while I continue to oppose the law that was passed to abolish the Elections Administrator’s office and am rooting for Harris County to prevail on the principle that the Lege should not be allowed to pass a law that targets one and only one county for perpetuity, I don’t want any more change to how we conduct our elections. Whatever happens in this case, please keep things as they are for at least the next few years. What we need right now is some continuity. Make Harris County elections a little more boring, please.