AUSTIN — Texas lawmakers met Wednesday to examine the state’s election process, effectiveness and potential improvements following the first major statewide election since new and controversial election laws went into effect.
The members of the Texas House Election Committee focused primarily on reasons for delays in reporting election results and the effectiveness of new poll watcher requirements.
First to speak was Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria, who saw the county through a slew of issues in March.
During the primaries, ballots were the incorrect size and the county took more than its legally allotted 24 hours to report preliminary results. Days later, it was found that as many as 10,000 votes were not included in the final tally, leading to partisan finger pointing.
Longoria, who oversees elections in the third largest county in the country, said she would recommend a greater leniency or an adjustment on timelines that currently require a 24-hour turnaround for results. If that can’t be accommodated, more resources will be needed, she said.
“If y'all consider that the only ‘timeliness’ would be midnight, then that is going to be directly proportional to the resources that each county is given,” Longoria said. “The resources to either have drivers or drop-off locations, people to staff those drop-off locations, and then even when you have drop-off locations, to get the boxes there to then get them to the election warehouse to central count to be processed. That is people; that is space; that is directly correlated to more resources.”
Lawmakers questioned her, saying the 24-hour rule had not previously been an issue. But Longoria said it likely was, and that past election administrators were not transparent in the struggles they were facing.
Longoria said the shift to paper and electronic machines — from only electronic machines previously — has also caused some delays, as those paper results must be transported and verified by both parties in the counting process.
According to elected officials, the new machines, with their creation of a paper trail, ensure more secure elections, although evidence suggests voter fraud is minimal. The new system requires voters to cast ballots on one machine that then prints their selection, allowing voters to verify their choices before submitting the results on a separate machine.
Longoria said elections offices must then transport results from polling locations across the county. In a place like Harris County, which is not only large by population but geographically as well, it takes time for systems to make it back to central count, she said.
“This paper ballot system that we're moving to, I think has some, let's call it, paper challenges that have not yet been contemplated by the Texas election code,” Longoria said.
She added that current timelines are more manageable when turnout is near 20%, as it was in March. Come November, when turnout is expected to at least double, it may be a different story.
“(In the) November elections, I think it will become increasingly more difficult for anyone who's working on a paper system to hit that 24-hour mark,” Longoria said.
Longoria said that in order to stick to election code requiring continuous count and meeting the 24-hour requirement, workers are committing to a minimum of 15-hour days. Fatigued and exhausted, some of her staff members were hospitalized from the physical impact of the work, she said.
“That, to me, is the worst moment of the March primary because that's people's lives that we're playing with at that point,” Longoria said.
Hector Garcia, Tarrant County elections administrator, said hitting the 24-hour mark for unofficial results is attainable in ideal conditions, but that is not always the case. Unforeseen factors such as long lines of voters or weather conditions could keep election offices from releasing results immediately or even within a few hours.
“My main recommendation has to do more with managing expectations,” Garcia said. “In my opinion, the real question is how fast within those 24 hours do stakeholders — whether it's voters, candidates or elected officials — expect to see preliminary results, and how fast do they expect to see final results on election night?”
Keith Ingram, director of elections for the Texas secretary of state, recommended lawmakers look into allowing multiple computers to tabulate and send results. Currently, those functions are handled by one computer.
Ingram said multiple computers would be especially helpful for larger counties that may already be struggling with timeliness.
He added that he did not know of other ways to help larger counties except for improving functionality with additional computers.
“Other problems are just baked into the cake of big elections in a big logistical enterprise,” Ingram said.
Another provision of the new election law boosted protections for poll watchers by granting them “free movement” within a polling location. The law made it a criminal offense to obstruct their view.
Ingram said that as it pertains to poll watching, issues were minimal and isolated in the past two elections.
“From our perspective, these two elections were the same as they were before with regard to issues that arose. They weren't related to the law,” he said.
The House committee will take the recommendations as potential bills in next year’s session. Lawmakers did not discuss the nearly 25,000 mail-in ballots that were rejected in the March primaries. Committee Chair Rep. Briscoe Cain said he intends to bring that issue before the committee in the near future.