Annise Parker is as politically savvy as they come. Her storied career includes six years on the Houston City Council, six years as Houston city controller, and six years as mayor, when she won bipartisan praise for her administrative competence. But even Parker was tripped up by new voting laws that the GOP-dominated Legislature passed last year. Parker and her wife are both older than 65 and traditionally vote by mail. This year, both had their mail-in ballots rejected because they failed to write the ID numbers that they used to register decades ago in the correct spot on the envelope, as Senate Bill 1 requires. Theirs were among the 11,717 absentee ballots—nearly 30 percent of all mail-in votes—that were rejected in Harris County, whose seat is Houston, because they didn’t meet one of the new requirements set by the “election integrity” law.
In the state’s largest county, though, the debacle of SB 1 has been overshadowed by one of the worst-run elections in recent memory. Right as polls opened, the county’s online map of voting locations crashed for about ninety minutes. As the day rolled on, social media filled with complaints about malfunctioning voting machines and mangled paper ballots, shuttered polling locations, and inexperienced poll workers. Then, after polls closed and early voting results were released, it took another four hours for officials to begin posting same-day votes—a process that wouldn’t wrap up until 1 a.m. on Thursday morning, making Harris the last county in the state to report its results. Capping off the dysfunction, elections officials announced on Saturday that they’d somehow failed to include in their initial count 10,081 mail ballots. (These were unrelated to the ones that were rejected because of SB 1.)
On Tuesday, Harris County elections administrator Isabel Longoria, who took the position in 2020, announced her resignation, effective July 1. “Ultimately, the buck stops with me to address these issues and conduct elections on behalf of the voters,” Longoria, who declined multiple requests for an interview, told the Harris County Commissioners’ Court, the county’s executive body, at its monthly meeting. “I didn’t meet my own standard, nor the standard set by the commissioners court.” The resignation wasn’t enough for the local Republican party, which is calling for Longoria’s immediate removal and has sued her office for breach of contract. (In Harris County, the political parties contract with the elections administrator to help conduct primary elections. The suit alleges that Longoria violated the terms of that contract by failing to count the votes quickly and accurately.)
Local Republicans have seized on Longoria’s mistakes to push back against criticism that SB 1 is aimed less at election integrity than at voter suppression. “You hear a lot of buzzwords that continue to be thrown around today, like ‘disenfranchised voters,’ ‘election integrity,’” Harris County GOP chair Cindy Siegel said at a press conference in Houston on Wednesday. “Who was disenfranchised on Tuesday? It was the voters who went early Tuesday morning to vote, then the machines didn’t work, or the poll wasn’t set up, or the paper was the wrong size.”
At first, Harris County officials gamely tried to blame Election Day problems on the new voting law. But the real issue appears to have been a combination of incompetence and inexperience. Even County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the county’s top executive and a Democrat, eventually admitted that most of the snafus were “unforced errors.”
One major source of Election Day headaches was the county’s new election machine, the Verity Duo, which is manufactured by Austin-based firm Hart InterCivic. In 2020, Harris County spent $54 million to purchase around 12,000 Verity Duos, in anticipation of the Legislature’s 2021 mandate that voting machines produce a paper record reviewable by voters. Unlike the county’s previous machines, which were twenty years old and produced only an electronic record, the Verity Duo requires voters to make selections on a touch-screen monitor, print out their votes, then scan the pages into a second machine. Last week’s election was only the second in Harris County to fully rely on the machines. Predictably, many voters struggled to adapt, inserting the paper too quickly or too slowly, and leading to 1,629 damaged ballots that needed to be re-scanned at the central voting center. (On Tuesday, a Hart InterCivic official noted that these ballots represent less than 1 percent of the nearly 358,000 primary ballots cast, but pledged to provide better training.)
Secretary of State John Scott said his staff spent much of Election Day fielding calls from frustrated Harris County voters. “There were reports from all around the county of damaged ballots,” Scott told Texas Monthly. “Some were smudged, some were crinkled, some weren’t going through the scanner.” Compounding voter frustration: last week’s ballot stretched to two pages to accommodate the dozens of races in Harris County. Although eighteen other Texas counties use the Verity Duo model, only Harris and Tarrant County, whose seat is Fort Worth, used a two-page ballot.
Elections administrator Longoria and local Democratic officials have blamed the long ballot and Harris County’s high population for the thirty-hour delay in reporting full Election Day vote tallies. In commissioners’ court, Longoria said that her office was understaffed because of budget constraints and that workers spent all night compiling results. Some workers fell sick from exhaustion, and one had what Longoria described as a “near heart attack.” Longoria said that sleep deprivation led to her staff missing the 10,000-plus mail-in votes. The Republican commissioners seemed skeptical of Longoria’s complaints of being understaffed, noting that Harris County spends more on elections than any other Texas county. (Not a surprise given that it’s by far the most populous.)
Harris County has long struggled with Election Day problems. Former Republican county clerk Stan Stanart was so dilatory in reporting results that the hashtag #firestanstanart trended every election night. But even Stanart usually got the results out by early the next morning. To address consistent problems in the county, the commissioners’ court transferred responsibility for conducting elections to the newly created position in late 2020. Hidalgo and her two fellow Democratic commissioners argued that appointing an independent, nonpartisan elections administrator—as several other large Texas cities have done—would result in smoother elections. At the time, the two Republican commissioners opposed the plan, contending that the person in charge of the process should be accountable to voters, not to a Democrat-led elections commission.
After interviewing several candidates, the commission chose Isabel Longoria in 2020 to become the county’s first elections administrator. At the time, Longoria was a 32-year-old failed city council candidate and a progressive activist whose only election experience was serving six months as voting rights adviser to the county clerk. Rather than select an experienced administrator, it appeared to many observers that Harris County Democrats had installed a political loyalist. (Hidalgo, who led the five-member elections commission, declined multiple requests for an interview.) “Clearly she is not qualified,” said Harris County commissioner Tom Ramsey, a Republican. “She should never have been hired in the first place. We need to call in the Secretary of State, not only to address concerns about the primary election but to do a third-party review as we look forward to the big election in November.”
At Tuesday’s commissioners’ court meeting, Ramsey and his fellow Republican commissioner Jack Cagle proposed returning authority for running elections to the county clerk, Democrat Teneshia Hudspeth. “Let’s give the job back to the duly elected county clerk, who is really one of the most experienced people in running elections, even though she’s not in my party,” Cagle said. The Democratic commissioners rejected that idea, instead voting to hire an independent consultant to investigate primary election mishaps.
In calling for Longoria to step down, Hidalgo noted that the botched election is being used by Republicans to sow doubt about election integrity. Longoria’s mistakes, she said, had become a distraction from the real threat to democracy posed by SB 1. “These are unforced errors, irrespective of one party’s efforts to weaken trust in the electoral system, which has happened ever since Donald Trump’s ‘Big Lie,’” Hidalgo said. “Particularly because of that, we cannot afford to have unforced errors. It is simply not acceptable.”