June will see the first trial in a batch of lawsuits by Republican candidates against Democratic winners in Harris County seats. They claim mishandling of the elections caused them to lose. But as we reported in part one of our investigation, we found little evidence to suggest voters turned away by problems at the polls affected election outcomes. However, that doesn’t mean the problems don’t exist. A series of Harris County’s leading elections officials may have contributed to the troubles.
Layoffs among the elections staff
Charlotte Lampe has worked as a Republican election clerk and election judge in Harris County since the 1970s, one of a dozen judges we interviewed for this investigation. She said the past few years under Democratic management of elections has been challenging.
“The last five to six years have been incredible changes and incredible confusion that I’ve never seen before,” Lampe said.
In 2018, Harris County elections were still managed by two separate, elected officials. The county tax assessor-collector oversaw the voter rolls, while the county clerk administered the elections. That year, longtime Republican County Clerk Stan Stanart lost his reelection bid to Democrat Diane Trautman. Lampe said, very quickly, she noticed a difference in the quality of training for election workers.
“I’m a trainer, you know, so I really evaluate how you train to make things easier, less complicated, and more straightforward, and you want to have a consistency of results,” Lampe said. “Well, I started going to the training sessions, and I’m looking at them, and they were confusing.”
Lampe said she felt the cost of that when she worked as the presiding judge at the Hamilton Middle School polling site in Cypress. She said she realized early in the day that she was going to run out of ballot paper unless she was resupplied. When she called the county, she said the results were disappointing.
“I said, ‘I need paper ballots. When are we going to have an ETA?'” Lampe recalled. “And finally they said, ‘You know, ma’am, you don’t need to do that attitude with me’…And I said, ‘I’m not trying to give you an attitude. I’m just trying to get a specific (time) because I’m running out of ballots.’ And she hung up on me.”
Mike Palmquist thinks he knows why training for election workers has suffered. A Republican, Palmquist worked in the elections department from 2014 through 2018, when Stanart lost his reelection bid.
“Basically, what they did was they got rid of anybody who had any kind of Republican connection,” Palmquist said.
Amy Holsworth, originally hired by the county clerk as a judge coordinator, is another Republican who says she lost her job when Trautman replaced Stanart.
“There were about, maybe 11 or 12 of us,” Holsworth said. Through our interviews with judges and former employees, we determined this was about a quarter of the Clerk’s elections staff at the time. “We were Republicans, most of us were active in the party on our free time. And so right after Stan had lost, Trautman was coming in, about 10 or 11 of them got their notices that they were either let go or they were not going to be rehired.”
Trautman enacted countywide polling places in 2019 – which Democrats say improved voter participation, but Republicans say increased the complexity of running elections. Trautman came under criticism for a 12-hour delay in reporting results during the 2019 general election and hours-long voter lines during the 2020 primary. She resigned, citing ill-health. Her replacement, interim County Clerk Chris Hollins, denies any layoffs under Trautman affected the institutional knowledge in his office.
“If I had to guess,” Hollins said, “the average tenure in the office when I got there was probably 15 or more years. I mean, there were many, many, many, many people who had been there for 25-plus years. And even those who might have been more recent hires had come from other election administration offices in Texas. And so, we’re still coming with decades of experience.”
Hollins is currently a candidate for Houston City Controller.