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Primary gives Texas voters a taste of partisan battles coming in November

Harris County, a Democratic stronghold, was the only Texas county that didn’t meet the 24-hour deadline to finish counting ballots. But Republicans played a part in the delay.

HOUSTON (CN) – Republicans in Texas’ most populous county are calling for the ouster of an elections administrator due to delays in counting ballots. Democrats are blaming new GOP-backed election rules for invalidating thousands of mail-in ballots. And this is just the primary.

Harris County, home to Houston, got ahead of changes to Texas elections last year when it bought new voting machines that produce auditable paper ballots. All of Texas’ 254 counties will soon be required to adopt these paper systems, a move seen as necessary to ensure accurate counts in the event voting machines are hacked.

But the paper ballots proved problematic for the March 1 primary. They jammed machines when voters mistakenly tried to cram two in at once. They were not scanned correctly after some voters wrinkled or folded them. Others were deemed unacceptable because of smudged ink.

More than 1,600 ballots had to be rescanned, which Harris County Election Administrator Isabel Longoria said was partly to blame for the nearly 30 hours her staff took to post final unofficial election results - not until around 1 a.m. Thursday morning.

Harris was the only Texas county that didn’t meet the 24-hour deadline to finish counting ballots. But Republicans played a part in the delay.

After Longoria indicated Tuesday afternoon she would not meet the deadline, Cindy Siegel, of the Harris County Republican Party Executive Committee, sued her, demanding a judge impound ballots not counted by 7 p.m. Wednesday.

The judge stopped the count only to let it resume two hours later and opted not to impound any ballots. But the damage was done.

"This fiasco has been a complete failure on behalf of Democrat County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s unelected, unaccountable Elections Administrator who is tasked with managing our elections and was sold to voters as a way to make our elections more efficient in Harris County,” the Harris County GOP said in a statement.

Republicans are blaming Hidalgo – the county’s chief executive, not a court of law judge – and two other Democratic county leaders for voting in December 2020 to move management of the county’s elections out of the hands of the county clerk, who runs for the office in partisan elections, to Longoria, a nonpartisan administrator.

But Republicans view Longoria as aligned with Democrats because they appointed her. And they are demanding she be fired or resign for the election count issues.

Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, a staunch conservative who sets the legislative agenda for the Texas Senate, jumped into the fray late Tuesday, claiming Harris County had “train-wrecked the counting of votes" and vowing to pass new election security laws.

“This election is proving to be a disaster. The issues at the polls today strike at the heart of exactly why we passed Senate Bill 1, the Election Integrity Bill, and why the Texas Senate will continue to pass even stronger election security reforms that improve the integrity of our elections,” Patrick said.

A voter arrives at a polling location at the Carver Branch Library in Austin, Texas, on Tuesday March 1, 2022. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

Texas Republicans passed SB 1 over the fierce opposition of their Democratic colleagues, a group of whom fled the state last summer and went to Washington to prevent Republicans from having a quorum needed to pass the bill and lobby Congress to pass federal voting protection laws.

The midterm primary was the first election under SB 1. Its requirement for voters to include their driver’s license or the last four digits of their Social Security numbers on the envelopes for their mail-in ballots led to 30% of them cast by Harris County voters to be flagged for rejection.

People who received these notices have six days from Election Day to correct their ballots in person, but Democrats said at a press conference Friday this proves their point that Republicans passed SB 1 to suppress votes in a state whose increasingly diverse demographics disfavor the GOP maintaining its grip on power.

State Representative Gene Wu, an attorney whose district is in southwest Houston, said longer vote counts are no surprise when backup paper ballots are included in the process, and Republicans wanted a paper trail on account of Donald Trump’s “big lie” that he won the 2020 presidential election.

“A fiasco is if 30% of mail-in ballots get rejected. That is a fiasco,” Wu fumed Friday at the Harris County Democratic Party’s headquarters.

“A fiasco would be if we lost ballots,” he continued. “A fiasco would be if we miscounted ballots. A fiasco would be if entire boxes of ballots were missing. None of that happened. The ballots were delayed, the count was delayed, the results, the reporting was delayed and people got antsy and had to go to bed. Boo-hoo.”

U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Houston Democrat, called on the Justice Department to launch a probe into state Republican leaders interfering with Harris County ahead of the November general election, in which Patrick, and Republican Governor Greg Abbott are up for reelection.

SB 1 made it harder for election judges to remove partisan poll watchers from voting sites, and gave watchers authority to sit or stand close enough to see and hear the activities of election officers.

The bill also made it a misdemeanor for election judges to prevent poll watchers from observing election procedures.

Jackson Lee warned this facet of SB 1 will cause problems in November. “Let me remind you poll watchers will be able to interfere inside the polls with voters, people who are assisting voters, [election] judges . . . We have some very serious preparing to do to avoid dangerous behavior in the November election,” she said.

Harris County Democratic Party Chairman Odus Evbagharu chastised Texas Secretary of State John Scott, appointed by Abbott last October, for doing nothing to educate voters about the changes wrought by SB 1.

Democrats believe Scott, who left his Fort Worth law practice to take the job, is unqualified to manage the state’s elections because he briefly represented Trump in November 2020 in a lawsuit seeking to block certification of Pennsylvania’s votes in the presidential election.

Evbagharu said he understands the frustration over the delayed vote count, but his party is committed to fixing these issues by sitting down with their GOP counterparts to do a post-mortem on the election.

 “We are also going to have a townhall with our election workers. We are going to invite the election administrator’s office to come and listen to what the election workers went through on Election Day. That’s how you solve problems,” Evbagharu told reporters.

The state’s primary runoff election is set for May 24.

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