By midafternoon on Election Day, Martin Renteria realized he had a problem. Renteria was the presiding election judge at the Northampton MUD Community Center, in the Houston suburb of Spring. The polling place had opened at 7 a.m. with 1,000 sheets of legal-sized ballot paper. Now it was 2:30 p.m., and Renteria was down to his last 250 sheets. Because each ballot required two pieces of paper, that meant the polling location would only be able to accommodate 125 more voters.
Renteria called Harris County’s central election office to request more ballots. He was told that a fresh supply would be delivered at 3:30. When no ballots arrived, he called the office again. No one answered the phone, so he left a voice message. Twenty minutes later, Renteria called a third time. This time, someone picked up. Renteria was told that he wasn’t alone: his location was on a list of fifty polling places across the county that were running low on ballots. “I explained that we would be completely out of ballots within the hour if we could not be resupplied,” he recently recalled. “The staff member told me that if we run out of ballots to close the station and reroute voters to other stations.”
With supplies dwindling, Renteria resorted to begging the election judge at nearby Klein High School for extra ballots. The judge sent five hundred extra sheets of paper, which kept Renteria’s polling place in operation until 6:30, half an hour before the polls were scheduled to close. At that point, Renteria had to turn away the approximately forty voters who were still in line. He has no idea how many of those people, if any, managed to cast their ballots at another location. “It was extremely frustrating,” he said. “In the six years that I’ve been presiding judge at that location, that was the first time this has ever happened.”
Renteria’s experience was hardly unique—12 to 17 of the county’s 782 polling places reportedly ran out of ballots at some point during Election Day. As in previous Harris County elections, there were also widespread reports of voting-machine malfunctions, paper jams, and unusually long lines. Several polling places failed to open on time, prompting a local judge to extend voting by an hour—an extension that was later overruled by the Texas Supreme Court. (The fate of the more than two thousand ballots cast during the extra hour of voting is uncertain. Attorney General Ken Paxton wants the Texas Supreme Court to throw them out, while Harris County wants them counted. On November 22, the court ordered the county to include the provisional ballots in its certified election results but postponed a final ruling on their status.)
Republican officials have seized on Harris County’s ongoing problems to advance the false notion that elections in the state’s largest cities are plagued by voter fraud. On the Monday after the election, Governor Greg Abbott called on the Secretary of State, the attorney general’s office, and the Texas Rangers to investigate “allegations of improprieties in the way that the 2022 elections were conducted in Harris County.” Abbott suggested that those improprieties could range from “malfeasance to blatant criminal conduct.”
Although most of the calls for investigations have come from Republicans, one prominent Democrat has joined them. On November 16, Harris County’s Democratic district attorney, Kim Ogg, formally requested that the Texas Rangers investigate what she called “credible complaints of election irregularities.” The Texas election code requires district attorneys to investigate alleged election-related criminal conduct when such allegations are made by two or more registered voters. Ogg was swiftly condemned by the Harris County Democratic Party, with which she has frequently clashed. “She is enabling election deniers and QAnon conspiracy theorists,” said party chair Odus Evbagharu in a fiery press release. “We cannot be helping amplify false rhetoric in the battle to preserve our democracy, freedom, and rights.”
The GOP is also pushing for greater state oversight over local elections, citing Harris County’s mishaps. On November 14, state senator Paul Bettencourt of Houston prefiled Senate Bill 220, which would create a cadre of state election marshals—licensed law enforcement officers appointed by the Secretary of State and tasked with enforcing election laws. (An identical law was filed in the state House by representative Valoree Swanson of Spring.) Bettencourt appeared to be following the lead of Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who earlier this year established an office of election crimes—one of the first state agencies in the country dedicated to election fraud. The bill would also establish a so-called rocket docket to quickly resolve election-related legal challenges on and before Election Day. “The bill came out of the Harris County experience [of election-related problems],” Bettencourt told me. “I don’t care what political party you’re in—it’s preposterous for governments to hold an election and not give out ballot paper.”
Harris County elections administrator Clifford Tatum, who has only been on the job since August, has confirmed that some polling locations ran out of paper, blaming what he called insufficient personnel and funding. On November 15, he told the Harris County Commissioners Court that the county is in “dire need” of improving how it conducts elections. An elections administrator spokesperson declined to answer questions for this story, explaining that Tatum is currently compiling a full report on the election. The Harris County Republican Party is suing Tatum, alleging that the paper shortages amounted to violations of the Texas Election Code.
With 4.7 million residents spread across nearly 1,800 square miles, Harris County has long struggled to conduct elections. Under previous county clerk Stan Stanart, a Republican, the county was usually one of the last in the state to report its results. In an attempt to fix the problem, Harris County created the new, independent position of elections administrator in 2020. But the county’s first elections administrator, a Democratic activist named Isabel Longoria, was forced to announce her resignation in March after a botched primary election in which 10,000 votes were mistakenly left out of the preliminary tally. Tatum, an attorney who previously oversaw elections in Washington, D.C., took over from Longoria in August.
Local Republican officials have called for eliminating the elections administrator position and returning responsibility for running elections to the county clerk—currently Teneshia Hudspeth, a Democrat who previously worked under Stanart. The problem, Republicans say, is that the elections administrator is appointed by a board chaired by Democratic county judge Lina Hidalgo, a bête noir for Republicans who has publicly sparred with Ogg. “It doesn’t matter who the elections administrator is,” said Republican county commissioner Tom Ramsey. “The problem is that the system needs to change back [to what it was before]. We had problems with the 2021 election, we had problems with the 2022 elections, and we’ll continue to have problems until they address this issue.”
Voting rights activists argue that Republicans are deliberately exaggerating Harris County’s problems in order to justify stricter voting laws, such as 2021’s Senate Bill 1, which made it more difficult to vote by mail and increased penalties for election-related crimes. The bill also outlawed several election innovations pioneered by Harris County, including drive-through voting and 24-hour voting centers.
“This is just the continuing criminalization of elections,” said Hani Mirza, voting rights legal director for the left-leaning Texas Civil Rights Project. “It’s a way to suppress votes, and it’s a way to interfere with elections.” Cindy Siegel, the chair of the Harris County Republican Party, told me that Mirza has it backward. “The Democrat party talks a lot about voter suppression,” she said. “Well, when people can’t trust that polls are going to open on time, that the machines are going to work, and that they’re going to be able to scan their ballots, they will give up on even voting. I’ve heard people say, ‘Why bother?’ ”
University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus sees the GOP’s push for greater oversight of local elections—think of Bettencourt’s call for state election marshals—as yet another front in its ongoing war against the state’s large, predominantly Democratic cities. “Republicans always seem to be looking for a pretext to take control away from local election officials and centralize it in the state,” he said. “This has been a common approach that has spanned plastic-bag bans, tree-trimming ordinances, fracking, and so on.” Yes, Rottinghaus acknowledged, “it’s unacceptable for the county not to be prepared for the number of voters it gets. But how does it get reformed? That’s the important question.”