Difficulties again put Houston at center of Texas elections

HOUSTON (AP) — A Democrat who is the top official in Texas’ largest county on Thursday acknowledged problems around Houston on Election Day that included paper ballot shortages and delayed openings of polling locations, but waved off an unfolding investigation by state police as political.

Malfunctioning machines and long lines were also reported last week at some of the nearly 800 polling locations in Harris County, which is home to nearly 5 million people and has previously been at the center of clashes in Texas over elections. Some voting rights groups have expressed concern the investigation could be used by the GOP to justify additional voting restrictions.

State election officials have said they heard of no widespread voting problems in Texas, where Republicans resoundingly won every statewide office and turnout was lower than in the 2018 midterms.

But Republican Gov. Greg Abbott this week said “widespread problems” in Harris County — which Democrats comfortably carried in statewide races — warrant investigation. That was followed by the the local district attorney, Democrat Kim Ogg, asking the Texas Rangers to look into “alleged irregularities” that she said could include criminal conduct, although her office has not publicly said what specific allegations warrant investigating.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, a Democrat who narrowly won reelection as the county’s chief executive against a Republican challenger, said she will ask local election department to improve. But she said difficulties at polling sites were not intentional and accused critics of stoking conspiracies.

“It’s no surprise that all this happens in the largest county in Texas, when clearly the folks that are peddling this didn’t like the outcome of the elections in this county,” she said.

Clifford Tatum, the county’s elections administrator, told commissioners Tuesday that one polling location opened “critically late” and that some ran out of paper, leading to election judges sending voters to other locations.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican, said one polling location had trouble getting more paper after being given enough for only 600 ballots. He said the difficulties undermine public confidence in elections.

“This is not about election denial. These are real voter irregularities that have to be investigated,” Bettencourt said.

The Texas Department of Public Safety, which includes the Texas Rangers, did not immediately return a message Thursday seeking comment about the investigation.

At Tuesday’s commissioners court meeting, Tatum said an early assessment found the need for a revamped communication system between the precinct judge and the call center that handles requests for help. More than two dozen people spoke at the meeting, which at one point grew so heated that commissioners paused the proceedings.

“We have an elections plan. We followed the plan. Some of the plan didn’t go as anticipated,” Tatum said.

Delayed openings at a dozen polling places on Nov. 8 resulted in a judge extending voting by one hour in the nation’s third-most populous county. But the Texas Supreme Court later stayed that order, resulting in provisional ballots cast during that time being put aside.

The smaller Bell County, which Republicans carried, also extended voting by one hour because of technical problems. County officials said no one challenged the more than 300 ballots cast during that time.

Democrat Rodney Ellis, a former state senator and now a Harris County commissioner, acknowledged the county should have had more election resources but said officials were adjusting to new rules passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature. Those included requirements for paper voting systems, which had bipartisan support.

Harris County is no stranger to frustration and anger over voting. In March, the county’s previous election administrator appointed by Democrats, Isabel Longoria, resigned after issues in the March primary that included about 10,000 mail ballots that weren’t counted the day of the election and a lack of poll workers.

Late-returning vote counts in Harris County have long frustrated election watchers in Texas, including when local Republican officials were in charge of the process. The county’s efforts to expand voting during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 also spurred Republicans to impose new restrictions that took effect this year, including a ban on drive-thru voting and 24-hour polling locations.

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Weber reported from Austin, Texas.

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