Harris County, Texas SoS Trade Blame for Houston Election Night Delays

[Image via flickr]

Harris County (Houston)’s clerk and the Texas Secretary of State’s office traded blame yesterday for Election Night tabulation procedures that delayed unofficial results until Wednesday morning. The Texas Tribune has more:

A last-minute change in how votes were counted threw Harris County into an electoral muddle Tuesday, causing nearly 12-hour delays in results for the closely watched mayor’s race and a raft of state constitutional amendments.

While exasperating election night vigils are not unusual in the state’s largest county, this election’s prolonged delay raised questions about what went wrong and why it took hours to make even a fraction of tallies public.

This year’s problems were the result of a directive from the state not to transmit returns electronically:

In past elections, results from individual precincts where taken to several drop-off locations around the county, which fed the tallies to the central office. This time, however, the electronic ballot cards with vote counts from individual precincts had to be driven from polling sites — some of them nearly 40 minutes away; some still running an hour after polls closed — into downtown Houston for tallying to begin. Just a quarter of returns had been reported right before midnight. A complete set didn’t come in until nearly 7 a.m. Wednesday.

“This was a painstakingly manual process that amounted to only one person processing [results] cards at a time where we could have had one person at each of the 10 drop off locations submitting electronically with our original plan,” Diane Trautman, the Harris County clerk, said in an email Wednesday morning. “The contingency plan we were forced to use was only meant to be used in case of natural disaster or power outage.”

The county switched to the more cumbersome process after an election advisory issued by the Texas Secretary of State’s Office days into the early voting period forced it to ditch its usual practice of sending returns to “rally stations” throughout the county to be downloaded.

Harris County had used a similar system for years, plugging memory cards, known as “mobile ballot boxes,” into specific readers at the rally stations and transmitting the vote tallies to a central office through a secure phone line, according to county officials. As it had in the May municipal election, the county was planning to use a secure encrypted internal network this time around.

That plan ran afoul of the state’s desire not to expose election returns electronically:

But citing security worries, the secretary of state’s advisory required the county to make copies of those memory cards if it wanted to transmit the data over encrypted lines. The originals could be processed directly at the main office.

Though the advisory was issued on Oct. 23, election officials in Harris and other counties said they weren’t made aware of it until several days later. By then, county officials said, it was too late for the county to purchase the equipment needed to make copies.

“We could’ve done that if there had been more than 13 days warning,” said Douglas Ray, a special assistant county attorney in Harris County. “It was just too short a period of time to get from point A to point B and pull this off in the way we intended to do it.”

Instead, the county turned to a contingency plan that included law enforcement escorts transporting ballot box memory cards from each polling site to the central counting station. The effort was further delayed when more than half of the county’s 757 polling places were still running at 8 p.m. as voters who were in line when polls closed finished casting their ballots.

The Community Impact reports that the state election director detailed his concerns in an email to a state senator questioning the change:

Ingram refuted [Trautman’s] claim in an email to Houston-area state Senator Carol Alvarado. Alvarado sent a letter to Ingram Nov. 4 expressing concern over the changes in reporting procedures. Ingram stated that transmitting voter results via the intranet violates Texas Election Code.

“The clerk was planning to use this risky method of results reporting even though they were fully aware it was illegal to do so, and with apparent disregard to the fact that the intelligence community has repeatedly warned election officials since 2016 of the continuing desire of nation states to interfere with our election process,” the email read…

“Most recently, we met with Hart Intercivic, the voting system vendor for Harris County, on [Oct.] 2 to discuss Hart’s new proposed solution for remote transmission,” the email read. “This proposed solution did not comply with Texas law and we now see that it looked remarkably like what Harris County was proposing to do.”

The Tribune notes that Harris County intends to adjust its procedures to fit the new restrictions and hopefully restore some timeliness to results reporting – though the dispute has exposed some partisan tensions stemming from Trautman’s victory in 2018 over the longtime Harris County clerk:

In the aftermath of the Election Day mayhem, Harris County officials said they plan to get technology in place to resume using “rally stations” in the next election. They wonder why the secretary of state’s decided this year to object to a process long in place.

Ray says Ingram … told county attorneys during a conference call this week that Harris County’s procedures have actually been out of compliance with state law for a decade. Ray said state officials told him and other lawyers on the call that the secretary of state’s office was “compelled to issue” its advisory ahead of Tuesday’s election after facing external pressure from the Harris County GOP…

A spokeswoman for the Harris County GOP said the party did not communicate with the secretary of state’s office until last Thursday.

But the party has raised concerns about the county clerk’s planned use of an encrypted internal network, arguing that the connection would not comply with state law.

“It is unfortunate that Clerk Trautman has rushed out her agenda by implementing a system not ready for prime time, and despite the law,” said Paul Simpson, Harris County Republican Party Chairman, in a written statement.

[NOTE: All the finger-pointing aside, it isn’t necessarily a problem for unofficial results to be delayed; many jurisdictions with central count and/or large numbers of vote-by-mail ballots don’t report full unofficial results on Election Night (though there are still complaints sometimes).]

All in all, however, this is a fascinating story with multiple layers: state/local tensions (which are by no means unique to Texas – but maybe a little bigger there), concerns about election cybersecurity, growing pains with implementation of a new voting model – and no small amount of partisanship resulting from the change in control at the Clerk’s office. Here’s hoping that everyone involved can find a consensus solution before the 2020 election … stay tuned!

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