Ballot shortages in Harris County didn’t undermine Republicans, data shows

With new bills being debated at the Capitol based on these claims, what does the future of elections in the county and statewide hold?

By Kristen CabreraApril 25, 2023 1:48 pm,

The GOP has claimed that paper ballot shortages in Harris County’s 2022 election were aimed at hurting Republicans. Party leaders have used these claims to call for new elections in races Republicans lost and to push for new state voting laws under consideration in this legislative session.

However, after digging into the data, Jen Rice at the Houston Chronicle reports the GOP narrative doesn’t add up. She spoke with Texas Standard about what the data really showed. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: I know we’re going to definitely be digging into some numbers here, but I’m wondering if you can break it down for us why these claims from the GOP first surfaced and maybe how many locations in Harris County had this issue of ballot shortages in the first place? 

Jen Rice: We first started hearing about the problems on Election Day in November. We heard some polling locations ran out of paper. So election workers said they’d been calling the county help hotline to get more paper. And in some cases, those deliveries came too late. And it’s normal for Election Day to have those types of problems. But in this case, many Republican candidates who lost ended up filing lawsuits to overturn the results. And they believe the paper shortages were deliberate and that so many GOP voters didn’t get to vote. The Democrats won. And so that’s why we looked into it and we found that about 20 locations did run out of paper that day.

Well, so the Chronicle spoke with, as I understand it, 32 election judges from polling stations that had issues with this paper and sort of cross matched those accounts with timestamped polling numbers from each location. What were you looking for precisely and what did you find? 

So first you have to know most polling places were run by two poll workers. So there’s one from each party usually. So we were able to reach out to people from both parties, both judges at these places. And in some cases we found the stories lined up perfectly. The Republican and the Democrat said the same thing: maybe “we were out of paper for 45 minutes from this time to this time.” And then we looked at the data and compared it, and it shows when the polling place checked in voters. And sometimes we saw that there was a gap exactly where they said it would be. And no voters were checked in then. But at some locations it didn’t match exactly. Sometimes it showed they were out of paper for not as long as Republicans said, and then in some cases, it really didn’t match. Like one judge who said they ran out, turned away many voters, but the polling place actually checked in voters steadily all day.

Does that effectively knock out the GOP narrative or no? 

Well, their claims are based on a real problem that happened. No polling place should run out of paper and about 20 of them did. But they’re saying the problem was so big it could have flipped elections and that it targeted Republican areas. And that’s the difference. We found it wasn’t that widespread and it happened roughly 50/50 in Democrat-Republican areas. And I interviewed several Democrat election workers in Democrat areas who had the same problem.

Well, now Harris County apparently has taken note of what happened and made some changes to prevent it from happening again. What sort of changes did they make? And does it look like these changes will work? 

So starting with this May election that’s going on right now – it just started – they have this new system that’s kind of like when you order Domino’s and they track where your pizza is. So now when election workers call for help, the system will track where they are in resolving it. So in November, they had the problem where they couldn’t see which deliveries had happened yet or where their delivery people were. Now they’ll be able to track where they are in filling those requests. And now they’ll also have more operators answering the phones because that was another issue. The phone lines were overwhelmed. So they’re doing the right things and we’ll see if it works.

I’m not sure about the pizza delivery metaphor. I hope it works better than the local joint near me. So we mentioned a legislative response. Can you explain some of those bills and where do they stand now? 

Yeah. So there are several bills at the Legislature that are targeting Harris County. Some of them are specifically bracketed so that they only apply to Harris County like one that would abolish the county elections administrator. That’s the elections official who runs the elections, like this would just abolish that role just in Harris County. Another one would create criminal penalties if polling places run out of paper – only applying to Harris County. But some of them would apply to the whole state, like one that would create an election marshal team that can respond to election code violations and file criminal charges. There are several bills.

Any reaction from state leaders about this data that you found?

Yeah. So far, I’ve talked with Republican State Sen. Paul Bettencourt to get his reaction to the data since he’s behind a lot of these bills and he doubled down. He defended their claims. But I think that the real test will be coming up soon when a House committee holds a hearing on the bills and we’ll see what they do now that we’ve been able to publish some better information about what happened.

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