Tarrant County starts search for a new elections administrator. Who would want the job?

Tarrant County’s respected elections chief, Heider Garcia, is leaving his job because he feels he can’t run nonpartisan elections with Tim O’Hare as county judge.

By Miranda Suarez, KERA News and Rachel Behrndt, Fort Worth ReportApril 25, 2023 12:18 pm, , ,

From Fort Worth Report:

Tarrant County’s respected elections chief, Heider Garcia, is leaving his job because he feels he can’t run nonpartisan elections with Tim O’Hare as county judge.

Tarrant County is in the market for a new elections chief, leaving some wondering who would want the job after the current administrator resigned over conflicts with the county judge.

Heider Garcia has run Tarrant County’s election department since 2018, and his job performance has earned praise across the state. He announced his resignation in a letter dated April 16, citing a difference in values with the county’s top elected official, County Judge Tim O’Hare.

“Judge O’Hare, my formula to ‘administer a quality transparent election’ stands on respect and zero politics; compromising on these values is not an option for me,” Garcia wrote in the letter. “You made it clear in our last meeting that your formula is different, thus, my decision to leave. I wish you the best; Tarrant County deserves that you find success.”

Garcia’s last day as the county’s election administrator  is June 23, according to the letter. Garcia earned about $152,067 annually.

O’Hare, a Republican, has shown an interest in county elections since he began campaigning for County Judge. In February, he, along with District Attorney Phil Sorrells and Sheriff Bill Waybourn, announced the creation of an Election Integrity Task Force to prosecute election crimes, even though those crimes are rare in Tarrant County. He did not consult Garcia in that effort. O’Hare also indicated this month that he planned to review Garcia’s job performance.

Cristian ArguetaSoto / Fort Worth Report

Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn, left, Tarrant County Judge Tim O’Hare, center, and Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney Phil Sorrells address the media about an upcoming election integrity task force at the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office, 200 Taylor St. The idea was originally to appoint an election integrity officer, but later changed to become a task force.

Garcia did not respond to a request for comment for this story, and O’Hare declined to discuss the specifics of his meeting with Garcia.

Now O’Hare is one of the people in charge of finding Garcia’s replacement. He serves on the county’s Election Commission, which is charged with picking the county’s elections administrator. The commission meets at 2 p.m. Tuesday, April 25 to accept Garcia’s resignation and start the hiring process.

In a time where elections officials are under threat, and support from county government is not guaranteed, finding Garcia’s replacement may not be easy, said Beth Stevens, who previously worked with the Texas Civil Rights Project and Harris County Elections.

“The nature of the role of running elections across the country has become increasingly politicized over the last five, seven, eight years,” Stevens said. “I think you will find that a general concern for folks who work in elections no matter what role.”

Last year in Gillespie County, west of Austin, the elections administrator and her two deputies all quit after threats fueled by misinformation.

O’Hare approved hiring Garcia 5 years ago

County Commissioners talked about Garcia’s departure at a heated meeting on April 18, where Democratic County Commissioner Roy Charles Brooks blamed O’Hare for Garcia’s resignation.

“The system was not broken. It was made to be broken. It was broken by the hand of you, Judge O’Hare,” Brooks said.

O’Hare denied that he pressured Garcia to quit.

Five years ago, when he was a member of the Election Commission, O’Hare voted to hire Garcia, who was the unanimous selection. The commission is made up of the county judge, the county clerk, the county tax-assessor collector, and the chairs of the local Republican and Democratic parties. O’Hare was the chair of the Tarrant County Republican Party at the time.

The current Election Commission includes:

• County Judge Tim O’Hare

• County Clerk Mary Louise Nicholson

• Tax Assessor-Collector Wendy Burgess

• Tarrant County Democratic Party Chair Allison Campolo

• Tarrant County Republican Party Chair Rick Barnes

Picking a new elections administrator requires a majority vote from the commission’s members.

In an interview with KERA and the Fort Worth Report, O’Hare gave a preview of what he is looking for in an elections administrator candidate.

“Someone that you know that everyone can trust, and someone that everyone will have confidence in, that they will run an election down the middle, follow the law, and not favor one group over another,” O’Hare said.

That ideal person would also not be so open with reporters, O’Hare said.

“My belief is the elections administrator is someone that runs elections, not someone that submits themselves for media interviews over and over and over,” O’Hare said.

As elections administrator, Garcia has opened his office to journalists and election skeptics, working to clear up questions and concerns about the election process. Besides earning praise from local and statewide officials, he’s also a recognized leader in his field and is the vice president of the Texas Association of Elections Administrators.

Chris Connelly / KERA

Tarrant County Elections Administrator Heider Garcia talks to members of the press about the unexpected number of defective mail-in ballots. Garcia blamed a printing issue.

“If you were building a prototype for an elections administrator, you would just copy Heider Garcia,” then-Secretary of State John Scott told Votebeat last year.

O’Hare and the current Tarrant County Republican Party Chair, Rick Barnes, are not as satisfied with Garcia. Both expressed displeasure at how long it took for results to be released during the March 2022 primary. That delay was due to a computer glitch, and election workers had to adapt to get the results out at all, Garcia told KERA at the time.

Barnes also serves on the Election Commission and he has criticized Garcia for speaking at the Texas Legislature on bills related to elections.

“There’s a number of election integrity bills being addressed in Austin right now by the state reps and the state senators, and there’s nobody from here that should be down there fighting against any of those in our administrative roles, or even talking against those,” Barnes said.

Barnes didn’t specify a particular bill, but Garcia was in Austin in March, where he testified on multiple election-related bills on behalf of the Texas Association of Elections Administrators and himself, not on behalf of Tarrant County.

Elections administrators should only share their expertise and opinions with county officials, Barnes said. Going to Austin “is way stepping out of bounds.”

Election job comes with safety concerns and threats, survey shows

Barnes isn’t worried that Garcia’s controversial departure will dissuade anyone from applying for his job.

“We’re a top five county in the state of Texas. People want to be in these five counties,” he said.

Allison Campolo isn’t so sure. She’s the chair of the Tarrant County Democratic Party, and another member of the Election Commission. Her immediate reaction to the news of Garcia’s resignation was frustration, she said.

“It makes me very nervous that Judge O’Hare may be making such a hostile environment that our next elections administrator may have a difficult time as well,” she said.

O’Hare’s Election Integrity Task Force is designed to scare people, Campolo said, and the Republican Party’s focus on alleged widespread election fraud, especially in 2020, has made administering elections harder. Elections across the country, including in Tarrant County, underwent forensic audits following the 2020 election. No evidence of widespread voter fraud has been found that would have influenced the election results.

So who would want Garcia’s job?

That’s a great question, Campolo said.

“We also now have to deal with this very scary, and dangerous, and frankly weird anti-voting rhetoric that’s coming out of certain parts of the country, and infiltrating not just national elections, but is having an enormous effect on state and local elections,” she said.

Like elections administrators across the country, Garcia said he endured death threats and racist attacks from right-wing election conspiracy theorists after the 2020 presidential election, which former president Donald Trump insisted was “stolen.”

In testimony to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, Garcia shared screenshots of some of the social media posts about him during that time.

“Go find this guy, he needs some new teeth,” one person wrote.

“[Expletive] needs a traditional Irish dirt nap,” said another.

Another social media poster shared Garcia’s home address. The Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office coordinated patrols around his neighborhood, Garcia wrote.

Garcia isn’t alone. Nearly one in three election officials know someone who left the job in part due to safety concerns and intimidation, according to a 2022 survey from the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute.

The Brennan Center conducted 596 interviews with election officials across the United States.

Nearly three times as many election officials said they were “very worried” about interference from political leaders compared to 2020, the survey found.

That’s a big part of why so many elections officials want to leave, according to the survey. One in five local election officials said they were somewhat or very unlikely to continue serving through 2024.

“Politicians’ attacks on the system, stress, and retirement plans are the primary reasons they plan to leave their jobs,” the survey report states.

Appointing a nonpartisan elections administrator ‘paramount and crucial’

The Tarrant County Election Commission has not met since February 2021. In 2011, legislators clarified the commission’s only task is the “appointment, acceptance of resignation, or recommendation for termination of a county elections administrator.”

There are currently no opportunities for public comment at the upcoming Election Commission meeting, according to an agenda posted Friday, April 21. In the past, members of the public have been allowed to speak at such meetings.

If public comments are not allowed at Tuesday’s meeting, the public can also address the chair of the commission, O’Hare, at Commissioners Court.

It is critical that the public be involved in the selection process, Stevens, the election expert, said.

“Making sure that they are there to be able to provide their feedback to the commission is very important,” Stevens said.

If you go 

County Commissioners Court:
When: 10 a.m. May 2
Where: Commissioners Courtroom
Tarrant County Administration Building
100 East Weatherford Street, 5th Floor
Fort Worth, Texas 76196

Election Commission meeting:
When:  2 p.m. April 25
Where: Commissioners Courtroom
Tarrant County Administration Building
100 East Weatherford Street, 5th Floor
Fort Worth, Texas 76196

The meeting will “basically be to set up posting the notice for the new elections administrator,” O’Hare said.

Commission members will accept Garcia’s resignation, then immediately go into closed session to discuss personnel matters and get advice from legal counsel about appointment of the elections administrator and the role of the Election Commission in the search and selection process.

After the closed session, the commission could take action related to the elections administrator’s employment status, according to the meeting’s agenda.

Texas law makes it clear that the position of elections administrator is a nonpartisan, professional role, Stevens said.

“The nonpartisan nature of the elections administrator is, I think, paramount and crucial,” Stevens said.

To serve as an elections administrator, a candidate must be able to vote in Texas. They also cannot be a candidate for public office. It is considered a misdemeanor if an elections administrator makes a political contribution, or publicly supports or opposes a candidate for public office or a measure to be voted on at an election while serving in their role.

Stevens said in Garcia’s letter of resignation to O’Hare, he summed up the path to finding his successor.

“I think Mr. Garcia said it really well at the end of this letter,” Stevens said. “He said that Tarrant County deserves to find success, and I think if the Election Commission will utilize that as their sort of guiding star, then they can find an administrator who can come in and provide a steady hand.”

At the Commissioners Court meeting on April 18, Republican County Commissioner Manny Ramirez thanked Garcia for his service. He didn’t cast blame for Garcia’s departure, but he did say that elections employees need to know their county government has their backs.

“I think what’s important is that they know that they’ve got the support of the court up here, and that we value what they do and we will continue to do so,” said Ramirez.

When asked if he agreed with that statement, O’Hare said he’d support employees who do a good job.

“The role of a county judge or a governor or a president or a mayor is to hold people accountable. It’s to uphold the public trust in their government,” O’Hare said. “I think you would find that I’ve been nothing but respectful and encouraging to our county employees.”

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