Dallas County elections administrator Heider Garcia stared at a massive projection screen showing a map speckled with 64 green dots, one for each of the county’s polling centers. It was the afternoon of February 20, the first day of early voting for next week’s primary election. Garcia had been in a windowless conference room since 6:40 a.m., overseeing his team of some fifty employees. A handful of polling centers had opened late because of minor snafus; at one center, the Republican and Democratic election judges had gotten into an argument. Otherwise, everything appeared to be going smoothly. Around 5,700 voters had cast ballots so far, with the highest turnout in the 65-to-74 age group.

Suddenly, the dot representing the South Garland Branch Library turned from green to yellow, indicating a longer-than-usual wait time. Clicking on the dot, Garcia could see the number of votes cast—which he compared against a spreadsheet showing the number of paper ballots distributed to each site. The map recorded an estimated wait time of 24 minutes. (Voters can access the same map on the Dallas County election website.) “Can you call South Garland and see what’s going on?” he asked one of his assistants. Within minutes, the assistant was speaking to a poll worker who informed her that the wait time was a mistake. Soon afterwards, the wait clock was reset and the dot turned back to green. Garcia gave his assistant a thumbs-up.

A 44-year-old Venezuelan-American with a neatly trimmed beard and an air of quiet confidence, Garcia may be the best-known elections administrator in the country—and not by choice. After the 2020 presidential election, he unexpectedly found himself at the center of the Big Lie, the right-wing conspiracy theory that the election had been stolen from Donald Trump. At the time, Garcia was the top elections official in neighboring Tarrant County, home to Fort Worth, Texas’s largest Republican-controlled city. When Trump lost Tarrant County to Joe Biden by 1,826 votes (out of 834,697 total votes cast)—becoming the first Republican presidential candidate to lose the county since 1964—many MAGA leaders decided that Garcia must have rigged the election. 

If he did rig it, he had done a remarkably poor job. After all, Trump comfortably won Texas as a whole. And most Republicans on the ballot in Tarrant County other than Trump won their race. But once right-wingers started digging into Garcia’s past, they entered full freak-out mode. Born in Pennsylvania to Venezuelan parents attending Penn State University, Garcia grew up in Caracas, where he studied computer engineering at the Universidad Simón Bolívar. He dreamed of working as a software developer at Pixar or EA Sports, but ended up taking a job at Smartmatic, a pioneering voting machine company founded in Venezuela.

Garcia worked as a software engineer and then as a product manager, traveling the world to help governments set up the company’s machines. Smartmatic moved its headquarters to London in 2012; Garcia, who was increasingly disturbed by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez’s dictatorship, took a job in the company’s Panama office the same year. (Smartmatic ceased all Venezuelan operations in 2018 after the government announced falsified election results.) In 2016 he left the company to become the elections administrator for Placer County, California, a conservative-leaning area north of Sacramento. Two years later, he moved his family to Fort Worth to take the top elections job in Tarrant County, a higher-profile position selected by the county election commission, a five-member board composed of the county judge, county clerk, tax assessor-collector, and the county chairs of the Democratic and Republican parties.  

The MAGA faithful saw red flags everywhere. On November 21, 2020, far-right website the Gateway Pundit published a story highlighting Garcia’s Venezuelan upbringing and work for Smartmatic, which Trump supporters had implicated, along with Dominion Voting Systems, in an elaborate plot to steal the election through electronic voting fraud. (Some variations of the conspiracy even roped in Chavez, who died in 2013.) Tarrant County used Hart InterCivic machines, not Smartmatic ones, but that didn’t seem to faze the conspiracy theorists.

“Sleepy Joe Biden did SIX PERCENTAGE POINTS better than Hillary Clinton just 4 years ago,” the article read. “Does ANYONE believe this actually happened?” The article was retweeted by Trump attorney Sidney Powell, who subsequently told Fox Business host Lou Dobbs that “one of the Smartmatic people went to Tarrant County, Texas, and turned that county blue.” 

Garcia and his family were soon inundated with graphic death threats. “Hang him high when convicted for fraud and let his lifeless body hang in public till maggots drip out his mouth,” wrote one anonymous user on Parler, the now-defunct right-wing social media app. “I think we should end your bloodline,” someone texted Garcia on Facebook Messenger. On X, formerly known as Twitter, one user posted Garcia’s home address. For the first time in his life, Garcia purchased a gun. He installed security cameras around his house. At one public meeting attended by hostile “stop the steal” activists, he warned the audience to stay away from his family. 

“If anybody here has any funny ideas, don’t go to my house,” he recalls telling the crowd. “If you want to shoot me, come to 2700 Premier Street”—his work address—“Monday to Friday, eight to five. You know where I park. Do it there.” 

Garcia refused to back down. “I’m stubborn by nature,” he told me. “I’m not going to quit my job because I’m afraid you might hurt me. I mean, my assistant was a retired Marine. He had done five combat tours. He spent thirty years putting his life on the line. So how do I look him in the eye and say my life’s too precious?” In the following years, as pressure from right-wing groups led to a wave of resignations among election workers in Texas and around the country, Garcia kept fighting disinformation. Rather than hiding from conspiracy theorists, he reached out to them, holding public meetings almost every week. He patiently answered their questions, held voting machine demonstrations, and invited dozens of self-appointed “election integrity” activists to observe the vote-counting process. 

“These are voters, and they have a right to ask questions,” Garcia explained. “These conspiracy theories are not going to go away until we deal with them. Trying to push them to the side, in my opinion, is stupid. I try to put myself in their shoes. I would hate to come to a government agency and have some bureaucrat tell me he doesn’t have enough time for me. Whether they’re misinformed, whether they’re confused, everybody deserves to get an answer.”

As Garcia continued engaging with skeptical right-wingers, he started winning some over. Not everyone, to be sure—Gateway Pundit never took down its inflammatory story, and Powell never apologized for sliming him on national television. But Garcia has won bipartisan praise for his transparency. One right-wing poll watcher from Tarrant County told the election-focused news website Votebeat that Heider “makes other election administrators look like idiots.” Former Texas secretary of state John Scott, a Republican attorney who briefly represented Donald Trump in a lawsuit challenging the 2020 election results, praised Garcia as “the prototype for an election administrator.” Elections officials across Texas started adopting Garcia’s outreach efforts to right-wing groups.

“Heider has set the bar for transparency,” said Jennifer Doinoff, who serves as president of the Texas Association of Elections Administrators and runs the vote in Hays County, in the Austin suburbs. “A lot of us have followed suit with some of the things that he began in Tarrant County. We’re posting more public information online, as opposed to waiting for people to ask for it. Maybe nothing is going to satisfy some people, but for the most part people have reacted positively to the changes. I think it has built trust in elections.” 

Even Garcia’s famous patience has its limits, though. In November 2022, Tarrant County voters elected Republican lawyer Tim O’Hare as county judge, the locality’s top executive. During his election campaign, O’Hare had declared that Biden won Tarrant County through “mail ballot harvesting,” and soon after taking office he created an “election integrity task force” to examine alleged voter fraud. Last summer, Garcia stepped down as elections administrator. In his resignation letter, he wrote that he believed in “respect and zero politics; compromising on these values is not an option for me.” 

Garcia received several offers to become an elections administrator elsewhere in the country, but was reluctant to uproot his family yet again. He ended up taking a remote job for the federal government, working as a subject-matter expert with the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, which is tasked with formulating best practices for administration of the polls. A few months later, he received a call from Dallas County elections administrator Michael Scarpello, who told Garcia that he was planning to retire. Would Garcia be interested in taking over? It was too good an opportunity to pass up, especially since Garcia could stay in Fort Worth and commute to his new office near Love Field. 

In October, Garcia was appointed to lead the largest independent elections office in the state. (The Texas Legislature abolished Harris County’s scandal-plagued elections office last year, returning authority to the elected county clerk.) “It’s hard to find good administrators now, because they’re under such attack,” said Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, a Democrat. “A lot of people are leaving the profession.” 

Garcia spent the past four months planning the primary elections, a three-week stretch in which he and his employees would work around twelve hours a day at headquarters. When I visited the office last week, Scarpello’s name was still on the front door. Garcia retained his predecessor’s staff and most of his processes, although he plans to replace a few computer systems. “I don’t agree with leaders bringing in their own people,” he told me. “My job is to come in, set policy, and provide leadership. Why would I reinvent the wheel?” He introduced me to logistics manager Lynn Coumpy, who has worked in the elections office for 29 years and oversees the warehouse where voting machines are stored. 

On election day, the county will operate 450 polling places, each with its own set of poll workers. It’s a massive undertaking that requires a level of planning and coordination akin to a military operation. “These are career professionals,” Garcia told me. “People have this impression that we only work during the election. No, it’s a year-round job.” He’s already engaging with Dallas-area activists, just as he did in Tarrant County. The wild accusations have largely dried up, as have the death threats. He plans to meet any future blowback with his time-tested formula of “patience and engagement.” 

Garcia worries that too many Americans take elections for granted. Growing up, he watched Chavez establish a dictatorship by exploiting Venezuelans’ distrust of corrupt institutions. “People were like, ‘screw the system.’ And that’s the opening Chavez used. He presented himself as independent of the parties, as a fighter for the people. So now we’re going to take a wrecking ball to the constitution, because anything is better than what we have. And that’s a scary place to be.” 

The irony of being accused of complicity with the long-dead Chavez—whose regime in Venezuela he fled from—is not lost on Garcia. “Growing up there was fantastic,” Garcia said. “Had it not been for socialism and Hugo Chavez, I would have spent the rest of my life drinking mojitos in the Caribbean.”