Governor Abbott: election irregularities in Harris County may necessitate new elections

AP Photo/LM Otero

Harris County Texas is huge. If it were a state it would rank 25th in population, just behind Alabama. Almost 5 million people live there.

Nine members of the U.S. House of Representatives hail from or represent the county, as well as 24 state representatives.

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At its center is Houston, which is reliably Democrat, but the county as a whole is a swing district these days with both Democrats and Republicans winning elections.

In other words, how well the elections are run matters a lot, not just to the citizens of the county itself, but to the overall balance of power in the state and country.

Guess what? The elections were run rather poorly last year. So poorly, and suspiciously so, that Governor Greg Abbott is suggesting that new elections may have to be held.

Abbott hasn’t said the “F” word…yet. Although he certainly implied it by suggesting that Harris County elections officials will have to be forced to conduct fair elections through the force of law.

At issue? Harris County officials didn’t provide enough ballot paper to 121 voting centers to cover the needs of the precincts. Not due to a surge in voting at the polls–that wasn’t the issue at all. Nor was it due to a shortage of available paper. There was plenty of it to go around.

They simply chose to deliver about half as many ballots to some voting centers as were needed in previous years.

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Harris County Republicans are suing the county over the matter, so Houston TV station KHOU did a deeper dive into the facts. The county itself claimed to have done an analysis that was inconclusive, suggesting that the problem wasn’t widespread. That turns out not to be quite true.

It was widespread, and it will be interesting to see exactly which precincts did and did not get sufficient ballots and if there is a pattern.

What we do know for sure is those county election officials tried to sweep the problem under the rug with their own lackadaisical investigation. That could be because they didn’t want to admit incompetence, or for a more nefarious reason.

The county’s post-election analysis on the extent of the shortage was “largely inconclusive.” After reviewing help desk logs and calling presiding and alternate election judges, the county estimated 46 to 68 voting centers ran out of their initial allotment of paper.

KHOU 11 Investigates compared ballot paper packets allocated to the total number of votes cast and discovered 121 voting centers did not initially receive enough ballot paper to cover voter turnout. The county allotted each of the locations six ballot paper packets, or enough for 600 ballots. But the total votes cast exceeded that amount, sometimes by hundreds of ballots. For example, 946 election day ballots were cast at the Bellaire Civic Center, 990 at Warner Elementary School, and 1,037 at Salyards Middle School.

The election day controversy left some voters and election judges furious.

“How does this happen? How do you run out of paper?” voter Sharan Gaunia said on election day.

“I’ve never heard anything so basic as running of ballots,” longtime election presiding judge Terry Wheeler said.

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Theoretically, voters could hang around for however long it took to get new ballot paper, but how many walked away frustrated? We will never know.

Abbott is hardly a firebreather or conspiracy theorist, and he isn’t making wild accusations without evidence of actual wrongdoing.

But the religious article of faith that nobody ever cheats in elections only developed after 2020, when suddenly it became forbidden to question the integrity of an election–because to do so would be to add fuel to the fire of Donald Trump’s narrative.

But of course in reality election fraud is as American as Apple Pie, and has been more common in history than 100% fair elections. Why do you think that everybody jokes about dead people voting in Chicago? It’s because dead people have voted a lot in Chicago. Political machines are about winning, and the incentives to do so are high. In the history of the universe elections would be the first thing of immense value that nobody tried to steal, were elections always clean.

Usually, elections don’t turn on the margins of cheating, and usually, the integrity of elections is sufficient to ensure an outcome that reasonably reflects the “will of the voters.” But when elections are close, irregularities can matter a lot.

Usually, questioning the outcome of an election is political suicide, so politicians avoid doing it and should unless they have proof. Making accusations without being able to back them up is not just a sure loser of a strategy, it helps nobody, including future candidates.

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But cheating happens. It may have here. Abbott clearly thinks it’s possible. And the elections officials aren’t tamping down suspicions. They have clammed up after having produced a laughably inaccurate investigation.

KHOU 11 Investigates repeatedly requested an on-camera interview with Elections Administrator Clifford Tatum over the course of three weeks. He ultimately declined to answer questions on the record, so we approached the public official while entering the county administration building.

“I’ll talk with you after we have a meeting with the court commission on Tuesday and then we’ll go from there, OK,” Tatum said.

Harris County Commissioner Tom Ramsey put the issue of voting irregularities on the Commissioners Court agenda for its regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday.

Tatum has previously said supplemental paper was delivered to some polls throughout election day, but his office provided no specifics about how much was sent or to what locations.

Figuring out what happened and reducing the chances of it happening again is a matter of empirical analysis and logical reasoning. Making accusations based only upon suspicions actually shields the people who screwed up or conspired against you. You look like a sore loser.

Gather the evidence of what happened, get your ducks in a row, and logically persuade people of your case.

It sure looks like the Harris County Republican Party wasn’t doing a good job of this: it took KHOU to collect this evidence, and despite having filed a lawsuit the Party people were surprised by the scale of the problems revealed in the investigation. What good are they if, 3 months after the election, they still had no idea how widespread the problems are? Are their lawyers any good?

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Innocent mistake or nefarious plot doesn’t matter in the long run; getting it right does, and if you get it right you ensure a better outcome in the future.

Without a doubt, something unforgivable happened in Harris County, and thanks to KHOU it is out in the open.

The failure of the Harris County Republican Party to get its ducks in a row is disappointing. Screaming “fraud!” accomplishes nothing; doing the investigation and proving your case is what counts.

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John Stossel 5:30 PM | July 13, 2024
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