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Double standard? Texas assigns unusual urgency to Democratic county's election mishaps

Civil rights and advocacy groups who have sued the state charging voter suppression say election problems they raise haven't received the same attention.
A worker puts a ballot into a secure box at a drive-thru mail ballot hand delivery center in Austin, Texas, U.S., on Friday, Oct. 2, 2020. Governor Abbott announced that every county in Texas would only be allowed one drop off box for mail in ballots, citing concerns of voter fraud.
A worker places a ballot in a secure box at a drive-thru center in Austin, Texas, on Oct. 2, 2020.Sergio Flores / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Texas officials have responded with urgency to complaints about problems at the polls in Harris County, a response civil rights groups say is far different from when they report voting obstacles.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, has called for a criminal investigation into problems in the largely Democratic county, stating there has been “confusion and delays, missing keys, insufficient paper ballots at Republican precincts, staffing problems and more. ” He said the problems could range from malfeasance to criminal conduct. 

But the urgency assigned to Election Day problems comes in a state that is being sued by civil rights, voting groups and the Justice Department over a sweeping voting law Abbott signed last year. The trial is pending.

Republican state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, Harris County's former elections administrator, announced this week that he had refiled a bill proposing to create “election marshals” made up of law enforcement agents. He wants to dispatch them to polling sites to investigate “potential voting violations” on election days.

Civil rights groups have long complained about long lines, insufficient voting machines in predominantly Latino and Black areas, voter intimidation and other issues. Students at Prairie View A&M have repeatedly protested problems on election days, and in 2020 Black and Latino voters faced long wait times in Harris County. The state has been ranked near the bottom in making voting easier.

In 2019, several civil rights and other groups sued Texas to stop the g removal of 100,000 people from voter rolls after questioning their citizenship status based on flawed law enforcement data. 

“There’s clearly a double standard,” said Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

“Obviously, we think government should take all steps to facilitate participation by everyone who is eligible,” Saenz said. “The state of Texas has gone in the opposite direction.”

Daniel Griffith, senior policy director at Secure Democracy, which focuses on improving voting and voter access, said that the “energetic campaign” that Texas officials and the GOP are waging, “even rising to the level of including law enforcement and criminal justice,” is over issues commonly seen in elections and that at face value “sound like the typical sorts of snafus that happen on Election Day.”

Andy Taylor, the attorney representing Harris County Republicans, disagrees that the mistakes in the county are isolated and innocent. He called them a total systemic failure.

Taylor said that because of his preliminary investigation, some defeated candidates will be contesting their election results.

Taylor alleges that some people voted twice because of a malfunction in the scanning of second pages of completed ballots and in how that problem was corrected. He said the county ended up with more votes than voters in some races.

The problems were exacerbated, he said, when a judge ruled that some polls could stay open later because of delayed opening and the filing of a civil rights lawsuit. He also said the county had committed a crime when it released early vote totals before some of the polls with extended hours had closed.

“I think the question that’s on the table is whether what happened in Harris County is simply the byproduct of extreme and gross incompetence or whether it was by conscious design,” said Taylor, who served as George W. Bush’s attorney when results of the 2000 presidential election were contested in Florida. “That requires a thorough criminal investigation.”

He said the issues he's raising are of bipartisan concern to all voters. "After all the dust settles ... it could well be a significant number of polling places in either impoverished or minority concentration areas have been disproportionately affected," he said.

Harris County Elections Administrator Clifford Tatum said in an email that his office is “fully committed to transparency” on Election Day processes and procedures, has been cooperating with the secretary of state’s auditing team and is tabulating votes of provisional ballots.

Tatum said his office is reviewing issues and claims about Election Day and will address them “promptly” in a report to the county elections commission and county commissioner’s court, the governing body.

The investigation Abbott wants would be on top of an ongoing audit of the county’s election system, begun before Election Day. The audit, started after the 2020 election, includes two Republican counties and one Democratic county. Conservative groups began pushing for audits of election returns in various states in 2020 after former President Donald Trump falsely claimed that the election had been stolen from him. Those claims are considered to have played a part in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

Also, Harris County’s district attorney, a Democrat who has clashed with county Judge Lina Hidalgo, also a Democrat, is calling for Texas Rangers to investigate after the Republican secretary of state informed her of “alleged irregularities” regarding voting, which the office said could include criminal conduct.

Texas Democratic Party leaders and the Harris County Democratic Party chair criticized Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg’s planned investigation, calling on her to “stop enabling Texas Republicans' insidious efforts to silence Black and Brown Houstonians. 

“In 2021, Texas Republicans moved mountains to make it harder for Black and Brown residents of Harris County to vote. It appears that in 2022, after Democrats made significant holds and gains in Harris, Republicans are doubling down on their voter suppression efforts,” the Democrats said in a statement late Thursday.

Ogg said in a statement her office is statutorily required to investigate election irregularities and such investigations are done regardless of party affiliation. Findings from the Texas Rangers investigation will be turned over to a grand jury, she stated. She noted previous investigations after the 2020 elections, which led to indictments of three Democrats and two Republicans.

It has not gone unnoticed that Democrat-voting Harris County is the target of the state's urgent response. The county, the largest in the state and third largest in the country, is majority minority and Democrats control most of the county’s government positions. 

In the pandemic, Harris County implemented 24-hour voting and drive-thru voting, which voters of color had a higher propensity to use than other racial groups. The law Abbott signed last year banned those Harris County initiatives.

“The state was very quick to get rid of those,” Griffith said.

James Slattery, senior supervising legislative attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project, said his group documented late openings in other voting sites in Fort Bend, Hidalgo, Tarrant, Bell and Dallas counties. A state district court judge allowed Bell County to keep its polling locations open an hour later because of machine malfunctions. At least one other county had paper shortage issues, he said.

"The state is always upset about how elections are run in Harris County, even when there are similar problems elsewhere," Slattery said. "If the government actually cared about these issues, we have a whole database of problems going back years."

CORRECTION (Nov. 21 2022, 11:28 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated who granted Bell County permission to keep its polling locations open an hour later on Election Day. A state district court judge, not the secretary of state’s office, granted the request for delayed closings.