HARRIS COUNTY, Texas (Nexstar) — The Texas Secretary of State’s office is pushing back on claims from two Texas groups about “voter intimidation” as early voting begins Monday. It says overseeing election procedures is a standard practice that’s been happening for decades.
But The Houston Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic relations, or CAIR-Houston, and the Texas Civil Rights Project said they feel Harris County is being singled out.
The Texas Secretary of State’s Office, or SOS, sent a letter to the Harris County Elections Administration on Oct. 18, stating it would be “sending a contingent of inspectors to the county to observe Central Count during the November 2022 election to ensure that Harris County establishes appropriate procedures and follows them.”
The letter went on to say the inspectors would be checking, at random, on election records and the counting of ballots.
Why Harris County, and why now?
This letter comes after the Texas SOS’s 2020 Election Audit. The SOS announced it would perform an audit in September 2021 of four counties, which made up about 35% of all votes cast in Texas during the 2020 election, the Texas Tribune reported.
“What we found is that in about 14 locations, the mobile ballot boxes — which are essentially flash drives that hold records of the ballots — did not have proper chain of custody logs when they were transferred from the polling place to the central count location where the ballots are counted,” Sam Taylor with the Texas SOS office said.
This chain of custody process is important because it helps secure ballots. There’s no evidence that it has affected any election results to date, Taylor said.
Dallas, Tarrant and Collin County were also included in the audit, according to Taylor. Taylor said Dallas County had some issues as well during the 2020 election, but has since resolved them.
Harris County had not provided requested documentation to Texas SOS’s office until recently, according to its letter to the county.
“We’re looking into this, we’re asking for more information from Harris County — that was the purpose of the letter,” Taylor said. “But in the meantime, we want to make sure that any of those mistakes that occurred in the past are not repeated in the 2022 general election, because even if it’s a small issue, it could have the potential to undermine voters’ confidence in the integrity and the security of the election process.”
Taylor said the chain of custody issues were at the central count location in Harris County, which is where they’ll have inspectors keeping an eye on things. Voters likely won’t see inspectors at various voting locations, according to Taylor.
Accusations of ‘voter intimidation’
CAIR-Houston and the Texas Civil Rights Project are accusing the Texas SOS office of trying to intimidate voters.
“This decision from the Secretary of State is an egregious attempt to subvert and undermine the election process in Texas before it has even take place,” the Texas Civil Rights project said in a statement. “The Secretary casts a series of aspersions on Harris County elections based on mere ‘preliminary findings…’ Further, the secretary justifies his order based on a partisan probe whose only purpose is to cast doubt on our election system. Harris County has been the primary target in Texas for Stop the Steal activists, and their allies in power who seek to silence Texas voters.”
Because of their concerns, the Texas Civil Rights project is asking the U.S. Department of Justice to send federal monitors to Harris County to oversee the state’s election investigators.
Election inspectors to be deployed across Texas during November 2022 election
The Texas SOS office said election inspectors will be across Texas this election, not just Harris County.
“We’ve sent election inspectors to Harris County for every single election in the past several years, including in 2020, where we had about a dozen inspectors on the ground in Harris County,” Taylor said. “Voters are not going to notice any difference … They don’t interact with voters, they don’t interact with the election process at all. They don’t interfere with voting whatsoever … They’re either employees of our office or other state agencies.”
Texas’s SOS office provided us a list of counties where they’ve sent inspectors dating back to the November 2019 election. In the 2020 Election, there were 250 inspectors statewide — about a dozen of those on the ground in Harris County.
According to Taylor, investigators are sent upon a county’s request. He told reporter Jala Washington inspectors this year will be sent to large counties like Dallas, Tarrant and Travis. Taylor said smaller counties like Gillespie will also have inspectors.
Harris County’s response to the Texas Secretary of State’s Office
The Harris County Elections Administration office sent a response to Texas’ SOS office.
In a five-page letter obtained by KXAN, Harris County Elections Administrator Clifford Tatum responded to the notice.
The letter reads: “the matters identified in your correspondence have been corrected and will not occur during this November 2022 General Election. Accordingly, I am responding to assure you that Harris County is in fact prepared for this November 2022 General Election and that the issues you identified will not occur in the 2022 General Election.”
On the first day of early voting, Harris County said it’s focusing its efforts on making sure everything runs smoothly, so it wasn’t available for an interview with us.
The Attorney General’s Office also announced it now has an integrity task force team. According to the Secretary of State’s Office, members of that team will be on the ground in Harris County as well.