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GOP sues Houston-area election official after county misses 10,000 ballots

Under fire from Republicans calling for her ouster, the rookie elections administrator of Texas' largest county said the discovery that 10,000 ballots had yet to be counted days after the March 1 primary is proof the system works.

HOUSTON (CN) — As Democratic candidates for Texas attorney general wait for the counting of 6,000 ballots that will determine who moves on to a runoff, Houston-area Republicans sued the election administrator in charge of those ballots accusing her of gross mismanagement of the primaries.

Taking a cue from the national GOP's de facto leader, former President Donald Trump, and his gift for hyperbole, the Harris County Republican Party in its Monday afternoon lawsuit calls Harris County Election Administrator Isabel Longoria’s handling of the March 1 primary the “worst election fiasco in Texas history” and says she showed a “callous indifference to the election process and to her duty to preserve election integrity.”

The party sued Longoria in Harris County District Court alleging she violated the Texas Election Code and breached a contract it entered with her to provide election services for the 2022 primary.

Noting that Longoria had no experience managing elections when the county’s Democratic leaders appointed her in late 2020 as voting administrator, the GOP claims she “completely dropped the ball” and caused a “litany of election disasters that disenfranchised voters, created significant risk of fraud and miscounting, and will likely delay final canvassing” a process in which the county’s Democratic and Republican parties verify and count all votes, including provisional and absentee ballots, to certify the results of an election.

Election experts say of all Texas’ 254 counties, Harris is the most difficult in which to manage elections because it has more registered voters, 2.3 million, than any county and at 1,703 square miles it is larger than the state of Rhode Island.

This can cause logistical headaches as election judges have to bring in voting machines and ballots from far-flung precincts to the central counting station in Houston, the county seat. Also, the county’s ballots are some of the longest in the nation given the large number of judicial and legislative offices up for grabs.

The Harris County GOP contends Longoria caused confusion on Election Day by changing several presiding judges and alternate judges that its chair, Cindy Siegel, had appointed to oversee specific polling places, which left some sites with no GOP election judges.

Texas primaries involve two ballots: one for Democrats, one for Republicans. But regardless of their affiliation, voters can choose to cast their votes for Republican or Democratic candidates.

“The Election Services Contract and the Texas Election Code reserve the appointment of Presiding Judges and Alternate Judges to the county chair,” the lawsuit states. “Presiding Judges and Alternate Judges have critical roles in preserving election integrity and the appointment of election judges by both parties help to ensure that voter confidence.”

Longoria also failed to provide election workers with functioning equipment and troubleshooting for the March 1 primary, the GOP claims.

Harris County’s voting machines print out paper ballots for an auditable backup and the GOP claims Longoria provided some polling sites with the wrong size paper, resulting in 15 to 20 races being omitted from some ballots.

Worse, they allege she provided “missing or inoperable equipment” for 200 out of 375 sites, preventing many from opening at the required 7 a.m. on Election Day, and did not ensure voting machines were properly programmed for each precinct, blocking some GOP voters from casting ballots for a U.S. House race and Texas House election.

She further violated the state Election Code, the GOP alleges, by not maintaining a livestream of her staff counting ballots.

“Defendant also failed to maintain continuous video monitoring in the central counting station. At approximately 10 p.m. on Sunday, March 6, the livestream link on YouTube was not functioning,” the complaint states.

Represented by Steven Mitby of the Houston-area firm Mitby Pacholder Johnson, the Harris County Republican Party seeks an injunction requiring Longoria to provide it with a specific plan for conducting the GOP primary runoff election, set for May 24, by May 17.

The GOP amplified its calls for Longoria to be fired or resign after the Texas Secretary of State’s Office informed county officials Friday they had found a discrepancy on election forms that showed a difference of 10,072 between the number of ballots counted and eligible votes cast.

In response, Longoria’s office confirmed approximately 10,000 mail-in ballots – 6,000 Democratic and 4,000 Republican – had been scanned into its tabulation computer but not added to the unofficial results. But it said the fact this error was discovered shows the process worked.

“We are committed to full transparency and will continue to provide updates as they are available,” Longoria’s office said in a statement. “While we understand the seriousness of this error, the ability to identify and correct this issue is a result of a lengthy, rigorous process and is a positive example of the process ultimately working as it should.”

The 10,000 ballots are set to be added to the tally Tuesday, which will determine which of two Democratic candidates for attorney general advance to the May 24 primary runoff against Rochelle Garza, a Brownsville resident and former American Civil Liberties Union lawyer.

Civil rights attorney Lee Merritt trails former Galveston Mayor Joe Jaworski by 1,418 votes. Merritt, who has represented the families of several Black Texans killed in recent years by police, said he likes his chances of surpassing Jaworski.

“We still feel like we have a very good chance of at least being a part of the runoff for this position," he told KHOU 11, Houston’s CBS affiliate.

Longoria announced her resignation Tuesday and accepted blame for the mistakes. She plans to step down July 1, which will give the county time to pick a successor before she leaves the post.

“Ultimately, the buck stops with me,” she said. "Now, we have a real opportunity to have a hard but necessary conversation in order to solve the problems for future elections and further bolster elections administration.”

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