On October 18, just six days before early voting began, the Texas secretary of state’s office announced that it was sending a team of inspectors to Harris County to monitor the election in the state’s most populous county. The inspectors would “perform randomized checks on election records” and “observe the handling and counting of ballots and electronic media.” The office also announced that Attorney General Ken Paxton would send a “task force” of attorneys to the county “to immediately respond to any legal issues identified by [the] Secretary of State, inspectors, poll watchers, or voters.”

State election inspectors are nothing new. The Secretary of State regularly deploys trained observers across Texas to ensure local election officials are complying with the law. Next week, 118 inspectors, most of them employees of various state agencies who volunteer their time, will fan out to seventy counties. But Harris County officials were alarmed by the prospect of a legal task force overseen by Paxton, who led a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the 2020 presidential election. 

“Our view is that this was designed to disrupt our election process,” said Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee, the county’s chief civil lawyer. “It kind of lays a foundation to call into question our election results if they don’t like them.”

On October 20, Menafee, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, and Houston mayor Sylvester Turner sent a joint letter to the United States Department of Justice requesting the deployment of federal monitors. Paxton’s task force, they wrote, appears “designed to chill voters’ trust in the election process in Harris County” and “to disrupt and intimidate local election workers.” The DOJ has since agreed to send monitors to the county. “State officials have shown that they can’t be trusted to be a good faith partner in Harris County’s elections,” Menafee said in a press release. “Having impartial federal election observers at the polls and in the room when the votes are being counted will help protect the integrity of our election and keep the state’s interference to a minimum.”

The Secretary of State’s office considers the uproar a massive overreaction. “This idea that sending election inspectors is somehow going to interfere with the election process, it’s just a complete misunderstanding of what their role and their legal abilities are,” said Sam Taylor, the assistant secretary of state for communications. “We’ve sent election inspectors to Harris County for every single election in the past several years, and we have never had a request to call in the DOJ to observe our observers. It just seems like politics.” Taylor declined to answer any questions about Paxton’s legal task force, including whether Paxton was planning to challenge the election results. Instead, he referred me to the attorney general’s office, which did not respond to my interview request. 

Taylor wasn’t alone in dismissing the concerns of Harris County leaders. On Twitter, Jessica Huseman, the editorial director of the nonprofit news site Votebeat (and an occasional Texas Monthly contributor) wrote that “the people freaking out [about] the observers the state is sending to Harris County are truly freaking out over nothing. . . . This is not new. This is not unexpected. They have no special powers to mess anything up or snatch ballots from the hands of voters.” 

While it’s true that election observers aren’t new, Menefee told me that he had never heard of the attorney general’s office sending a task force to monitor an election in any Texas county. “To the extent that they’re providing legal advice to the election inspectors, they can do that from Austin,” he said. “I think the intent of announcing that they’re sending those folks to Harris County was for the purpose of intimidating folks.” On Thursday, ProPublica reported that Paxton’s office has launched at least 10 investigations into “alleged crimes by election workers” over the past two years. “These probes may be a harbinger of potential chaos in the midterms,” wrote co-authors Cassandra Jaramillo and Joshua Kaplan.

With 4.7 million residents spread across nearly 1,800 square miles, Harris County faces unique challenges in conducting elections. Because of its size, the county—under both Republican and Democratic election officials—is usually one of the last in Texas to report its results. Former Republican county clerk Stan Stanart, who ran elections from 2011 to 2018, was so dilatory in reporting results that the hashtag #firestanstanart trended every election night. Stanart lost his seat to a Democrat in 2018; two years later, the county created the independent office of elections administrator. The idea was to hand control of elections to an appointed expert rather than an elected politician. But the county’s first elections administrator, a Democratic activist named Isabel Longoria, was forced to resign in March after a botched primary election in which 10,000 votes were mistakenly left out of the preliminary tally. Clifford Tatum, an attorney who previously oversaw elections in Washington, D.C., took over from Longoria in August.

As justification for sending both the election inspectors and the legal task force, the Secretary of State’s office cited what it termed “serious breaches of proper elections records management” during the 2020 presidential election in Harris County. Those breaches came to light in the course of the “full forensic audit” of the presidential election that was demanded by former president Donald Trump. The Secretary of State’s office agreed to conduct such an audit for the two largest Democrat-led counties (Harris and Dallas) and the two largest Republican-led counties (Collin and Tarrant). The audit’s first phase, which examined voting-machine accuracy, cybersecurity, and potentially ineligible voters, found nothing unusual about the election. The findings of the final phase, a detailed review of all available records from the four counties, are scheduled to be released later this year. 

So what were the “serious breaches of proper elections records management”? The letter reported that auditors identified missing or improper chain-of-custody records for the mobile ballot boxes—removable media storage devices akin to flash drives—at fourteen polling locations (out of more than eight hundred total locations). They also found technical issues with Harris County’s drive-through voting booths, a COVID-19 pandemic–era innovation that was later banned by the Legislature. In total, auditors could not find chain-of-custody records for 184,999 ballots (out of more than 1.6 million total ballots cast), said Chad Ennis, a former senior fellow at the right-wing Texas Public Policy Foundation who is directing the forensic audit. When I asked whether there was any evidence that ballots had been tampered with, Ennis said he had no way to know—the only devices that could read the ballots were destroyed at some point after Harris County adopted new voting machines in 2021. “The analogy we’ve been using is that we have the VCR tapes, which are the mobile ballot boxes, but we no longer have the VCR,” Ennis told me. 

Harris County leaders have characterized the missing chain-of-custody records as, at worst, a harmless bookkeeping error. “We don’t even use the same machines anymore,” Menefee said. “We have new machines with a paper-ballot backup. So the vast majority of the issues they raised wouldn’t even be applicable to current elections.” Even the Secretary of State’s office seems reluctant to allege deliberate misconduct. In a recent interview with Texas Monthly, Secretary of State John Scott admitted there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud in Texas and defended local election officials. “I have yet to hear about or meet any elections administrator in the state who is not trying to do a perfect job,” he said. 

Taylor, the assistant secretary of state for communications, told me that the Texas election code bars Paxton’s task-force members from entering polling places or the central count office. “Neither the attorney general’s office nor the Department of Justice are authorized to be present in a polling place,” he said. “Anyone telling you otherwise is not reading that section of the law correctly.” 

Which prompts the question of what, exactly, Paxton’s attorneys will be doing. James Slattery, a senior staff attorney at the left-leaning Texas Civil Rights Project, pointed out Paxton’s apparent conflict of interest as both the state’s top attorney and a candidate in Tuesday’s election. “The letter says the task force will respond to reports from poll watchers, but some of the poll watchers are from his own political party,” Slattery said. “There’s nothing in the letter that identifies guardrails for how the task force will conduct itself.” 

Like county leaders, Slattery worries that if there’s a close race in Harris County—say, the contest for county judge between Hidalgo and Republican challenger Alexandra del Moral Mealer, which polling suggests is a dead heat—Paxton will challenge the result in court, just as he did in the 2020 presidential election. “The claims of these election monitors could be used to give ammunition to people who want to say the election result should not be certified, or not certified until a partisan audit is conducted,” he warned. “You can weaponize the forensic audit, or what might come out of the monitors and the task force, to hammer away at the legitimacy of the results.”

Even as it races to complete its audit of the 2020 election, the Secretary of State’s office is already gearing up to audit the 2022 election. Under Senate Bill 1, the controversial election bill passed by the Legislature last year, the Secretary of State must audit four counties after every biennial general election—two counties with populations of less than 300,000 and two with populations of 300,000 or more. This year, the counties, which were selected in July through a random drawing, will be Eastland County, Guadalupe County, Cameron County, and—you guessed it—Harris County.