Early voting is around the corner and, just as county election officials buckle up for the start of election season, officials in Texas’ biggest county get a letter. It’s from the Texas Secretary of State about missing election information and the implications for Harris County in the upcoming midterms.
The letter warns that Harris County has left unanswered questions about the chain of custody for election materials from 2020, two years ago. As a result, the letter says the secretary of state’s office will be sending inspectors to observe voting and vote counting in this year’s elections. Lina Hidalgo, the top elected official in Harris County, is calling the timing of this notice “suspicious.”
Jen Rice, Harris County reporter for the Houston Chronicle says Hidalgo isn’t the only one calling this move calculated. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: So the Secretary of State is concerned about election results from 2020. What, specifically, and why are these results from two years ago coming up as an important issue now?
Jen Rice: So as you mentioned, early voting is starting on Monday. The Harris County Elections Office is about as busy as they get. So this is a pretty messy time for the state to be sending them a letter about the status of the audit of their 2020 election, but that’s what’s happening. So the Secretary of State’s office has been collecting documents from the county for about a year now, and now they’re pointing to some issues that they’re seeing. It is normal for the Secretary of State’s office to send staff to the county to watch over election proceedings. But what does not appear to be normal is that, according to this letter, the attorney general’s office is also sending a task force to Harris County to monitor the election. So that’s new, that the attorney general’s office will also be sending people.
Harris County is one of four counties that’s been undergoing an election results audit from the 2020 election cycle. The other counties include Collin, Tarrant and Dallas. Why were these counties chosen for an audit in the first place?
Well, what we do know is that the audit was announced last September, and it was just right after President Donald Trump had asked for people to audit the results in Texas.
I remember when that happened. A lot of people were saying that Governor Abbott was doing former President Donald Trump’s bidding there, and there were a lot of Democrats pushing back on this audit strategy. Well, early voting starts on Monday, so there’s not much time for Harris County to respond to all this. What are they saying?
So they’ve been very cautious and measured in their response. They’ve said they’re reviewing the letter. They have the county attorney looking at it as well. But they’ve really stressed, you know, we’ve got a few days left until early voting starts and we have all of our attention on running that smoothly. This is a difficult time to pull away some staffers to look at audit results when they’re frantically trying to make sure that this election goes smoothly, as all election officials in the state are doing right now.
Well, the Secretary of State’s office seems to suggest that this intensified scrutiny of Harris County was prompted by the audit, which they say revealed serious breaches of proper elections management. What specifically are they concerned about?
So one of the main points they’re saying is that they need additional documentation. They’re saying, “We’re missing documents. We need you to show us more of these reports so that we can make decisions.” They’re saying there’s a list of 14 polling locations that they want more information about. And they’re really big polling locations. They’re not just small neighborhood libraries or something. [These are] like an arena, Toyota Center – the big turnout places. And then also they found one polling location where the number of ballots that were tabulated was more than the number of ballots that should have been cast. That doesn’t necessarily mean that there was an error with the vote count, but that they’re looking into that area.
County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who’s a Democrat, said in her own statement Wednesday that the timing of this letter is suspicious at best. I think that’s pretty close to a quote. What is she concerned about specifically when it comes to what the Secretary of State is saying here?
Well, I spoke yesterday with Christina Beeler, a voting rights staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project. She was very alarmed. She was calling the letter an intimidation tactic. And she said, we don’t really have a reason to trust the people who are sending this letter, the Secretary of State and also the attorney generals involved here. She questioned whether they’re acting in good faith. We know that both of these individuals have been Trump allies in the past. They have been involved with questioning election results, and so she just is concerned that they’re targeting Harris County. This letter isn’t going out to other counties, and that the state has targeted Harris County repeatedly in the past, sort of on the eve of elections.
Also in Hidalgo’s letter, she said that this appears to be opening the door to possible inappropriate state interference in Harris County elections. Is there a concern that this is being done for political purposes?
Yes, people are definitely concerned about that. And one thing I’ve heard in particular is people are alarmed that the Attorney General’s office specifically is involved here – they’re going to be sending a task force to monitor Harris County – and people are concerned because Attorney General Ken Paxton is actually on the ballot right now, and people have called that a conflict of interest.