The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Texas county didn’t count 10,000 ballots. Now the parties are at war over who’s to blame.

Advocates say the problems in Harris County reveal that a weakened system can’t be fixed by divided parties

Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria, right, announced her resignation after roughly 10,000 ballots weren't counted in an unofficial tally of primary results. (Mark Felix for The Washington Post)

Voting machines failed to power up. Poll workers handed out the wrong-size ballots. Optical scanners rejected hundreds of votes.

And then, as if enough hadn’t gone wrong during the March 1 primary in Harris County, Tex., a weary election worker who had been on the job for at least 30 hours neglected to include about 10,000 of the roughly 360,000 total votes in an unofficial tally published a day after polls had closed.

One week later, there’s one thing everyone agrees on: The primary was an error-riddled disaster. Isabel Longoria, the county’s top elections official, tendered her resignation this week and declared, “We lost the faith of the voters.”

What Republicans and Democrats in the nation’s third most-populous county don’t agree on, however, is exactly what went wrong or what to do about it. Republicans are suing and demanding that the state take over the Democratic-controlled elections office. Democrats say the problem is a new law enacted by Republicans that made it harder to vote by mail and criminalized election mistakes.

Rejected mail ballots, confused voters: Texas’s restrictive new law casts shadow over primary

The result, in Harris County at least, is new evidence of a weakened system too fragile to withstand the everyday glitches and mistakes of running an election in a state where the parties are too deeply divided to fix those problems together. That worries voting advocates, who fear a worst-case scenario in which a majority of Americans simply don’t trust the outcome of elections anymore.

Reuters interviewed Harris County's top election official, Isabel Longoria, shortly before the Texas primary. Longoria resigned after ballots weren't counted. (Video: Reuters)

“Politicizing our elections weakens faith in our democracy,” said Chris Hollins, a Democrat who ran elections in Harris County in 2020 and is now running to be Houston mayor. “Instead of saying, ‘Great, the process works,’ the response is, ‘Look what happens when Democrats run a city.’ Or, ‘Look what happens when they change this law.’”

Nearly a year and a half after the 2020 election, former president Donald Trump’s false claim that the result was stolen continues to reverberate across the country. Trump’s assertions persuaded millions of supporters that U.S. elections are tainted with mass fraud, prompted a wave of restrictive new voting laws, and pushed Democrats in many states to vehemently oppose most new laws and accuse the GOP of intentionally undermining faith in elections.

Harris County has been an epicenter of those forces. Home of Houston and governed by a Democratic majority, the county made headlines in 2020 by expanding voting access to counter the effects of the pandemic. Officials sent mail-in ballot applications to eligible voters, operated drive-through early-voting sites and established drop-off locations for voters to deposit their ballots if they preferred not to vote in person or use the mail.

Many Republicans vilified the changes. After Harris County went for Joe Biden by more than 13 points, GOP lawmakers claimed without evidence that the new practices had invited fraud, and in September, they enacted a sweeping election bill that outlawed many of them. Senate Bill 1 also established new identification requirements for mail voting, imposed new criminal penalties for a variety of election-worker infractions and added new vote-count reporting requirements on election night.

Democrats fiercely resisted the law, arguing it would disenfranchise voters and set large counties up for failure with difficult demands to reconcile results on election night.

The March 1 primary offered the first real-world test of the law’s effects. As Democrats warned, it’s clear that a high percentage of mail ballots were rejected under the law’s new identification requirements. As of Thursday, the secretary of state’s office said it expected that around 10 percent of mail ballots statewide were rejected — a far higher rate of rejections than before SB1 was enacted.

“To be clear, the election was thrown into chaos the moment that Senate Bill 1 passed the legislature,” said Lina Hidalgo (D), who leads the Harris County Commissioners Court.

Longoria also cited the law to explain the chaos that erupted in her office on March 1.

“The process was rushed,” Longoria told commissioners Tuesday. “There was a lack of guidance from the state. We had to print training manuals as we were still receiving guidance from the secretary of state.”

But other issues in Harris County’s primary did not appear to be directly tied to SB1. Poll workers were ill-prepared to operate a new paper-ballot voting system that was used for two elections in 2021 but that most voters encountered for the first time this year. At a county commissioners meeting Tuesday, poll workers complained of inadequate training and technical support and of unforced errors such as the delivery of the wrong-size ballot paper at some polling locations.

“We had a whole line of voting machines go down,” one poll judge testified at the meeting. “Our scanner didn’t work right off the bat. We had to put ballots into the emergency slot. The envelope wasn’t big enough at the end of the night.”

And then there was the 10,072-vote mistake. An election worker failed to transfer votes from a memory drive onto the computer where countywide voters were being tallied, officials said. The error was discovered by state officials under a new disclosure rule in SB1 requiring counties to publish how many voters cast ballots and how many ballots were counted. If the numbers don’t match, state officials can order an investigation.

In Harris, the numbers were wildly off, prompting the state’s top elections official, Keith Ingram, to demand an explanation from the county on March 4. That led to the admission of the thousands of missed ballots.

Sam Taylor, a spokesman for the secretary of state, said the incident proved the value of the new requirement. “Any time there is a potentially election-changing number of votes that is not counted, that’s a severe oversight,” Taylor said.

But county officials said that their own canvassing procedure would have caught the error before the election results were certified this week, and they said the pressure to publish unofficial results within a day of the election contributed to the error. The discrepancy did not change any outcomes in Harris or in statewide races.

“Make room for error — we said that all along since they presented SB1,” said Odus Evbagharu, the chairman of the Harris County Democratic Party. “It was the whole point of SB1 — to criminalize and penalize folks for simple human errors.”

Harris County Republicans seized on the errors. They said Democrats “intentionally mismanaged” the primaries, called on Longoria to be fired, demanded that the state take over elections for the remaining contests this year and filed a lawsuit claiming that the errors disenfranchised Republican voters. They also accused Hidalgo, who is seeking reelection this year, of a “coverup” after she also asked for Longoria’s resignation.

“You blamed Trump and you blamed partisanship,” Jack Cagle, a Republican county commissioner, said to Hidalgo at Tuesday’s public meeting. “The thing that tears down trust are polls that don’t open, equipment that you can’t pick up, long lines, delays and, even if they were found, 10,000 ballots that weren’t there when they were supposed to be there and were recovered later.”

Officials won’t know exactly how many machines malfunctioned until the supplier, Hart InterCivic, is able to examine the equipment weeks from now after the results of the elections are final. Election officials said Thursday that many of the machine problems were operator error, such as failing to plug in a power cord, and that only 10 machines out of about 12,000 had to be replaced on Election Day. Hidalgo announced plans Tuesday to hire an independent consultant to examine what went wrong.

In addition, Steven Sockwell, a Hart vice president, said at Tuesday’s meeting that the number of ballots that could not be electronically scanned, about 1,400, was low as a proportion of the overall ballots cast — less than one-half of 1 percent. Amid a barrage of questions about why voters had to contend with two-page ballots and whether that was to blame for some of the difficulties, Sockwell also noted that there is always a “learning curve” with the introduction of a new voting system.

“Going to paper was the issue, not two pages. It’s hard for a county the size of Harris to deal with such issues on such a large scale,” Sockwell said, noting that Harris County is Hart’s largest client — larger even than two entire states, Hawaii and Oklahoma, that his company serves. Sockwell emphasized that all 1,400 ballots were counted by the end of the night.

Such nuances have been lost amid the partisan rhetoric.

“Because of inexperience, incompetence and disingenuous behavior, we’ve had the worst election we’ve seen in 40 years, in my lifetime, in Harris County,” said state Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R), who was a co-author of SB1. Bettencourt added that he intends to introduce more legislation in 2023 to prevent what happened in Harris County this year.

Republicans also criticized Longoria’s announcement that she would stay on until July, to provide continuity for two upcoming elections, one in May and the other in June. Hidalgo said she expects to install a new administrator in time for the general election in November.

Rodney Ellis, a Democratic member of the county commissioners court, said he believes the primary showed the value in SB1′s new disclosure requirements. Although he opposed SB1, he argued the singular focus by Democrats on criticizing the law — even provisions that might improve election administration — is a mistake.

“The headline on Senate Bill 1 has to be that it’s bad for democracy. It’s a suppressive bill,” Ellis said. “But there are pieces in there, little nuggets, that we should keep and just continue to use.”