Here’s why we still don’t know what went wrong in Texas on Election Day

Scattered complaints from voters and news reports since last week paint a picture of “widespread problems” and dysfunction at Harris County polling places on Election Day. Various reports say “several” polling places didn’t have enough ballot paper. Some didn’t open on time. Some had machines that weren’t working.

But nearly two weeks later, as officials struggle to defend the county’s election from a barrage of criticism and litigation, the county still can’t describe how pervasive the problems were at its 782 polling places and whether any were severe enough to prevent people from voting.

Even now, election staffers are continuing to call each of the more than 700 election judges who worked each polling site to find out exactly how many locations opened late, how many ran out of paper, and how many had issues with voting machines. An investigation by the county’s district attorney launched earlier this week alleges at least 23 polling locations had paper ballot shortages.

Harris is unusual among large Texas counties in not having an effective system for logging its polling place problems. Others have an easier, faster way to gather that data that doesn’t require calling hundreds of people individually and taking down notes. Instead, election software troubleshooting tools, used these days by many election directors across the nation, can help monitor and keep track of every single issue reported at polling sites. These tools have features that alert officials of the issue in detail and provide status updates of the resolution in real time.

Cliff Tatum, the newly hired Harris County elections administrator, on Tuesday told county commissioners that he is “in dire need” of that kind of software, together with the money to purchase it. Election administrators in Dallas and Tarrant counties use a sophisticated troubleshooting tracking system, which they say is essential to their operation and costs between $30,000 and $40,000 a year.

Some of the issues Harris County faced, such as late polling site openings and paper ballot shortages, are normal and happen to varying degrees in every election. But without the tools needed to gather details about each problem, experts say, it’ll be difficult to determine the full scope of the issues in the county. It also makes it difficult for election officials to respond to problems efficiently and to explain what happened to the public.

“Especially when people start making accusations about impact, [the software] can help give context and perspective to problems that can get blown out pretty quickly,” said Jennifer Morrell, co-founder of the Elections Group.

Harris County continues to face an onslaught of political and bipartisan criticism, litigation, and investigations. Officials have been unable to rebut accusations because they don’t have enough information about exactly what went wrong. The longer election officials go without providing answers to leadership and the public, the angrier people have become.

Harris County’s current troubleshooting and communication system has a call center taking in reports of issues from polling sites and from voters. And more than 160 technicians are tasked with going out to address problems. But Tatum says “there is no real visibility” for him into the troubleshooting timelines and their status outside of his headquarters. Each time his staff received a call reporting an issue, he was not able to track how long it took a technician to respond, whether the issue was resolved, how long the problem took to fix, or how much time it took a technician to go from one location to the next in a county that spans 1,700-square-miles. “Those are critically important questions that you’re going to ask me, that based on the current systems that I have, I cannot answer,” he said to county leaders.

This kind of software is offered by a variety of election vendors nationwide. Some jurisdictions build their own version of it to meet their needs with the help of IT departments. They’re increasingly becoming an indispensable part of the “elections control room” for election administrators in large counties, Morrell said.

For example, the operator of a nuclear facility is going to want visibility on all the components of their operation that they don’t have eyesight on. And this is true, too, for election officials, she said. They prepare for the election, they send the people, the voting equipment, and the ballots out to voting sites. “And then they’re no longer under your control and your visibility. So if there’s a problem and you don’t know about it, by the time you do, then it’s already too late. It’s already blown up,” Morrell said.

In Dallas County, elections administrator Michael Scarpello said the department has used a troubleshooting system called AskED Helpdesk since 2012. His office has response teams assigned to specific tasks: one for election hardware issues, one for poll worker issues, and another that responds to election procedure issues. He said this system has helped his team respond to issues at polling sites quickly and before “they become problematic.”

In Tarrant County, elections administrator Heider Garcia said that without these kinds of tracking systems, election administrators risk “flying blind” on Election Day.

“It’s like on a plane, you don’t really see what’s outside the cabin, you’re flying with instruments telling you what is like outside, what the temperature is. And these are your instruments,” Garcia said.

His department uses software by the poll worker management company Tenex. It features a map of wait times at polling locations, with a color-coded system to show where the lines are short or long, and live updates of incident reports. On Election Day the system helped Garcia be prepared to answer questions from political party chairs about polling place problems. He could tell them whether a technician was on their way to the site and how long it would take to get resolved.

On Election Day, Harris County was court ordered to extend voting until 8 p.m. A lawsuit by voting rights advocacy groups cited about a dozen locations that opened late and that were closed for some time due to issues with voting machines. Another lawsuit, by the county’s Republican Party, claims the shortage of ballot paper “disfranchised” an unspecified number of voters. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott called for an investigation of the elections operation due to potential “malfeasance.”

The accusations also fueled dozens of members of the public who criticized the county Tuesday during the commissioner’s court meeting, with some calling for Tatum’s resignation. Others said the elections administration department wasn’t working and asked county leaders to turn election duties back to the county clerk and the tax assessor’s office, which oversaw elections until 2020.

Tatum defended his election plan but identified the areas he knows must improve. This included hiring more people for his despartment. During an October elections commission meeting, Tatum told the commission his staff needed to fill 12 full time positions.

Tatum said he plans to do an analysis of the number of vote centers operating in the county to “determine how to logistically serve” that number.

He reminded the court and the public that “friends, neighbors and volunteers” run the election and that there’s no “malfeasance and no ill intent.”

Tatum told county leaders Tuesday that he plans to deliver a full report with details of the Election Day problems to the county elections commission. But as of Thursday, the staff was still calling election judges and assessing how and where things went wrong. When the promised report would be released was still undetermined, Harris County election administration spokesperson Leah Shah said.

Natalia Contreras is a reporter with Votebeat in partnership with the Texas Tribune. Contact Natalia at ncontreras@votebeat.org.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

Ruling in fluoride election lawsuit marks latest defeat for this Texas vote-fraud activist

FREDERICKSBURG — Laura Pressley and three other people huddled inside a Fredericksburg courtroom Monday, bowing their heads, closing their eyes, holding hands, and beginning to pray in hushed voices.

“In Jesus’ name, Amen,” the group whispered, just moments before the trial was set to begin in their lawsuit contesting the results of a three-year-old city election.

Their prayers appear to have gone unanswered. On Monday, almost immediately after arguments concluded, 216th District Court Judge Stephen Ables denied the relief they sought. He would not, he said, overturn the election.

“I had to make a finding that these ‘irregularities’ changed the results of the election,” he said. “I don’t think I have the basis to do that.”

The lawsuit was filed against Fredericksburg’s former mayor in early 2020 by poll watcher and anti-fluoride activist Jeannette Hormuth and local election judge Jerry Farley of Fredericksburg. The suit claimed election malfeasance in connection with the defeat of a 2019 proposal to remove fluoride from the city’s water system. Pressley’s Austin-based attorney, Roger Borgelt, represented Hormuth and Farley in court Monday.

It is the latest in a string of court losses for Pressley, a long-time Central Texas anti-fluoride activist, conspiracy theorist, perennial candidate for office, and self-styled trainer for poll watchers who even has her own state political action committee. This year alone, the Texas Supreme Court has dismissed at least two lawsuits she filed against the secretary of state, in which she claims the office isn’t following election law. This pattern, election experts and advocates say, promotes misinformation, wastes resources, and could further harm the election process.

“You see this maneuver among these fringe conspiratorial organizations where a lot of times they say that ‘there’s reason to believe that there’s fraud’ in the election system, but what they point to are, at worst, deviations from procedure,” said James Slattery, senior attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project’s voting rights program. “This is merely one tactic in that broader strategy to undermine faith in elections.”

One lawsuit, tossed out by a judge last month, sought to direct the secretary of state to retract advice the office gave counties about the use of randomly numbered ballots. Borgelt told Votebeat he’d already filed a motion for a rehearing on the decision.

Experts have time and time again said the practice Pressely’s allies advocate — consecutively numbering ballots — could facilitate election fraud. Consecutively numbered ballots could also more easily make voters identifiable, and aren’t necessary for audits. A separate lawsuit, dismissed by a judge in February, sought to direct the secretary of state to ask election officials to print early voting result tapes immediately after early voting instead of waiting until polls close on Election Day.

“This is disappointing,” Pressley told Votebeat after the judge’s ruling in the Fredericksburg case. “I think it sends the message that we don’t have to follow the law.”

But Pressley’s interpretation of the law departs drastically from the interpretation of Secretary of State John Scott’s office.

“Our office is following and has always followed Texas law, and continues to provide ample guidance and weekly training for county election officials on how to make sure the Texas Election Code is being properly followed as we head into the upcoming General Election,” Sam Taylor, assistant secretary of state, for communications said in a statement.

The trial Monday in Fredericksburg drew a crowd of about 30 people, the majority of whom appeared to be elderly and in support of the suit. Many came into the courtroom with pens and notepads and spent the entirety of the trial taking notes.

The arguments made by Hormuth, Farley, and their supporters in Gillespie County echoed arguments Pressley has been making for years. In 2014, after losing a race for Austin City Council, she claimed irregularities and unsuccessfully sought a new election. She has spent the time since suing counties across the state over similar allegations, training hundreds of poll watchers, and filing grievances against the Texas secretary of state’s office for — she says — violating Texas election law.

Now, in Gillespie, she, Hormuth, and Farley have claimed that election officials “engaged in illegal conduct” that led to potential fraud, and they are also seeking a new election. Angela Smith, another local activist, claimed local officials had violated a laundry list of election laws. None offered any proof of fraud.

They said poll watchers were “obstructed” on election night and during a recount of the votes; that more than 400 ballots were not signed by an election judge and shouldn’t have been counted; and that more than 30 ballots were missing. Fredericksburg City Attorney Daniel Jones called witnesses to rebut the allegations, including the 2019 election judge who failed to sign the ballots in question. When Jones asked why he didn’t sign the ballots, he said he just “completely forgot.”

According to the secretary of state’s office, the law specifies that an unsigned ballot should be rejected if the election judge determines the ballots were not provided to voters at the polling place. The election judge on Monday testified that the ballots were provided to voters at the polling place that he was assigned to. No one has questioned whether the voters who cast those ballots were eligible.

Meanwhile, Hormuth testified about the claim that poll watchers couldn’t see proceedings. “I was more of a spectator. It was like they didn’t want watchers there. It felt secretive,” Hormuth said, referring to how far away election officials told her to stand while she observed proceedings at the central counting station after polls had closed on election night.

Suspicions about secrecy and obstruction dominated the two-hour trial. Hormuth, Smith, and Farley cited their interpretation of the election code to justify their claims, as Pressley nodded and smiled from the first row of the courtroom. But their testimony didn’t carry the day.

Terry Hamilton, one of the former Gillespie County elections workers, also testified Monday.

“If they can’t see from three feet away, then they shouldn’t be a poll watcher,” Hamilton said. People in the audience gasped and laughed, mocking Hamilton’s testimony.

“The statute [related to poll watching] doesn’t specify distances, it just says they need to sit or stand conveniently near the activity,” said Jones, the city attorney, after proceedings concluded. “The law supported the arguments that I was making. I’m glad the court agreed.”

Tammy Patrick, an expert on election administration and a senior adviser for the Democracy Fund, said an oversight or omission by election workers shouldn’t negate the access of an eligible voter to the franchise.

“Election officials are our neighbors. They’re basically volunteers because they don’t get paid very much. And they have a lot of tasks that they are responsible for on election day,” Patrick said. “And so it’s absolutely the case that things will be missed. Is it optimal? No, of course not. But does that mean that there’s fraud or that the election was illegitimate? Absolutely not.”

The Fredericksburg trial was the latest in a string of roadblocks set up for local officials by Pressley and others. Only months before the trial, the entire staff of the elections office in town resigned, partly because their daily lives had become overtaken by conspiracy, harassment, and threats of lawsuits.

“The threats against election officials and my election staff, dangerous misinformation, lack of full time personnel for the elections office, unpaid compensation, and absurd legislation have completely changed the job I initially accepted,” Anissa Herrera wrote in her resignation letter, dated August 2.

On Monday, Hamilton said he was glad the trial finally brought an end to the dispute.

“This is done. I’ve been dealing with this for years,” he said. “I’m tired of it.”

Williamson County Elections Administrator Chris Davis said Pressley has long had a reputation as a thorn in the side of election administrators across the state.

Davis said election judges in Williamson County have repeatedly reported Pressley-trained poll watchers describing ballots as “illegal” because they’re not consecutively numbered and arguing over the access poll watchers should have in central counting stations. But Davis said he and other election officials are confident that the procedures counties follow are correct and in compliance with Texas election laws.

“When the judges call, we tell them ‘keep doing your work and give the poll watcher a warning that if they disrupt you again or the process, we can have them removed,’” Davis said. “I don’t think [the lawsuits] will change anything. We have documentation that we’re following the rules of the secretary of state’s office.”

Right after the judge adjourned the case, some in the crowd seemed to not understand that the judge had ruled against the suit. The room was quiet. Then, a gray-haired man in the crowd asked, “So did we win?”

In unison, several other people responded.

“No.”

Natalia Contreras is a reporter for Votebeat in partnership with the Texas Tribune. Contact Natalia at ncontreras@votebeat.org.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

Boisterous agitators disrupt election machine test, badger Texas’s secretary of state

This article was originally published by Votebeat, a nonprofit news organization covering local election administration and voting access.

About a dozen activists demanding responses to conspiracy theories about election integrity this week disrupted what is typically an uneventful public testing of voting machines ahead of an election in Hays County.

The activists shouted at the county election administrator and Texas’s secretary of state, who was present for the testing. County officials said they’d never previously encountered such intense hostility at the routine event.

The crowd surrounded members of the election test board — which consisted of political party representatives, county officials and election workers — who were assigned to test the machines, pressing in and looking over their shoulders. Many filed into the election department’s large conference room at county headquarters holding notebooks and pens, ready to take notes.

As soon as the testing began, the activists began to raise familiar questions.

“Are the machines all connected?” one asked Jennifer Doinoff, the county’s elections administrator. “How many Bluetooth devices are there?”

No, the machines are not connected, Doinoff responded, nor were there any Bluetooth devices. The questioning continued, sparking side conversations and repeatedly drowning out the voices of those doing the testing. Doinoff, over and over, had to ask the crowd to lower their voices.

“Can we go back to focusing on the testing please?” Doinoff told the crowd. Attendees said they were at the public event — versions of which were held this week by many county election offices across the state — as “concerned citizens” and were not affiliated with any particular group or political party.

Texas law requires public testing of the voting machines be done before and after every election to ensure the machines are counting votes correctly. Half-a-dozen Hart Intercivic voting machines were spaced out on a large table inside the room, ready to be tested by the handful of county officials present to help.

Texas Secretary of State John Scott was on hand in Hays County, home to Texas State University, to observe the testing and film an educational video about Texas’s voting systems.

As testing of the machines continued in the background, the activists turned their attention away from the process, surrounding Scott and peppering him with complaints and prepared questions. Scott, a Republican, spent around 20 minutes listening and answering granular questions.

“We’re following state law,” Scott told them.

“No you’re not,” the activists responded, nearly in unison.

Esther Schneider, from Driftwood, was among those who gathered around Scott. “In France they do 100% paper and they have their election results at 11 o’clock on the night of the election. Why can’t we do that?” she asked Scott. France reports election results faster because elections there are run by the national government and also have fewer elected offices on ballots. The question has nonetheless become a common refrain among those who think 2020 was stolen, popularized by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, a well-known promoter of election conspiracy theories.

“I don’t know enough about France, but let me tell you this: I love how our state does this, and the people who I work with on a daily basis and the workers I’ve met throughout the state all have one goal, and that is to have safe and secure elections,” Scott told Schneider and the crowd. “Our system isn’t perfect, but good people are running this to help us have a good outcome.”

Their insistence on the superiority of the French election system was just one of several points raised by the Hays County attendees that mirrored misinformation spread by groups across the country that have seeded doubts about the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.

The Hays County activists also told Scott they believe voting machines are not trustworthy; they want hand-counting ballots of ballots and same-day election results; and emphasized the need for consecutively numbered ballots and to go back to precinct polling places rather than vote centers.

To date, despite investigations around the country, no one has found evidence of widespread voter fraud affecting the outcome of the 2020 election. An audit conducted by the secretary of state’s office found next to no problems.

Doinoff and her staff told Votebeat they weren’t discouraged by the rancor. Instead, the disruption and the questioning highlighted the importance of testing voting systems, also known as logic and accuracy tests, ahead of an election. That process has been standard practice for decades.

“I am still glad that people came,” Doinoff said. “We want them to see it and ask us.”

The purpose of the logic and accuracy tests is to make sure the voting systems are properly calibrated and will count correctly for the election, said Tammy Patrick, a senior advisor at the Democracy Fund and an expert in election administration.

Those who typically show up to run the test vary depending on the state and jurisdiction, but testers usually include representatives from the state and each political party, the county, the city, and members of the public. Some places livestream the test. The public and the media are invited to observe.

“It’s not necessary that every voter go and attend. But it’s important for them to know that part of the beauty of the system is that you have representatives in the room that have your best interest as a voter at heart,” Patrick said. “It is important that they all know that there are safety measures and protocols in place to make sure that machines count accurately.”

In Hays County, the test board of about 10 people worked in pairs to do the testing on each of the touch-screen machines. One person read votes from a pre-marked ballot listing real candidates out loud, while another made selections on the machine, which printed out a ballot. The ballots were then scanned into two tabulators, and the votes were compared with the pre-prepared ballots to make sure they were accurately tabulated. The testing encompassed accessibility features for disabled voters, along with language access features for non-English speakers.

The chaos in the room led to unusual hiccups, said Doinoff. After the first run of testing, three races did not match the results from the prepared ballots, which meant the test had to be repeated from the start. Workers began again, testing each of the machines with 29 sample ballots that had to be re-entered and rescanned. Most of the activists on hand did not notice.

The second test was successful.

“This is not common for our county. We usually get it done the first time,” Doinoff said. “But we’ve never had this many distractions before.”

Although logic and accuracy tests are typically not attended by crowds of people, some election administrators are making efforts to conduct outreach in hopes of using the tests to build trust in the process. Hays County has done this for years, and Doinoff said that around a dozen members of the public regularly attend such testing.

The Hays County elections office used newspaper announcements and a notice on the county elections website to invite the public. Doinoff also said she sent emails to local party chairs, election workers, and volunteers to remind them of the event.

This was the first time, though, has the crowd been so vocal.

“I had to keep reminding people to please let the test board focus,” Doinoff said. “We never had this much noise and chaos.”

To help further boost confidence in the process, other Texas counties are hosting more than one public test.

In Tarrant County, elections administrator Heider Garcia on Friday will host an additional testing opportunity for the public. This test, however, has not been done before in Texas and it’s randomized and unscripted.

Patrick said the more, the better. “The more people get involved in the process to be able to see all of the safeguards that are in place to protect the sanctity of the process, the better they should feel about the accuracy of how the machines and the system work,” she said.

This was Renee Rainey’s first time attending and participating in the logic and accuracy test. Rainey, who is a resident of Driftwood and a member of the Hays County Republican Women organization, said she wished more members of the public would attend. She was not among the group of activists raising questions.

“It’s important that the public gets to know the process so they know that, this isn’t scary and that isn’t something that’s secretive,” Rainey said. “This should be a celebration of people being able to vote.”

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