An election probe heightens the tension between Texas leaders and the Houston area
Tension between GOP state leaders in Texas and election officials in the Democratic-leaning Houston area is at an all-time high after the 2022 election.
Republicans are accusing Harris County officials of " election improprieties" that resulted in delayed polling site openings, paper ballot shortages and staffing issues on Election Day, among other things.
Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg announced last month that she was mandated to open an investigation into the county's midterm election following requests from Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas secretary of state's office.
In a Nov. 14 letter, the secretary of state's office told Ogg that it was seeking to review "possible unlawful conduct regarding the handling of blank paper ballots" during the election. State officials say their preliminary investigation, based on interviews with election judges, found the county may have been in violation of at least two sections of the Texas Election Code. In the letter, though, the secretary of state's office did not provide any evidence of intentional criminal conduct.
Due to the ongoing investigation, state officials said they were unable to answer questions about the possible criminal charges against Harris County.
However, local officials in Houston say this probe is part of a multi-year Republican effort to intimidate the state's most racially diverse and populous county.
Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee told NPR the investigation is "just an escalation of the unnecessary and unwarranted scrutiny that they've applied to Harris County elections since the county went blue" in 2018.
In the past several years, Menefee said, state Republicans have filed lawsuits against the county, and threatened more. He says state election officials have also conducted multiple audits in the county, which have now escalated to a criminal investigation.
"It's unsurprising but unfortunately it is incredibly shocking that they would stoop to this level to try to suggest criminal conduct when the folks here on the ground are just doing the best they can to run elections," Menefee said.
Harris County has had election woes
Over the past several years, Harris County elections have been plagued with various issues.
Following the state's March primary this year, then-Harris County Supervisor of Elections Isabel Longoria resigned after thousands of mail ballots were not counted on Election Day, as required by state law. It was reported that there were also issues with voting machines and staffing.
And during the November election this year, many of the technical and staffing issues persisted, according to reports filed by election inspectors to the secretary of state.
Election inspectors — who are neutral third-party observers, often state employees who volunteer each election year — reported issues at some polling sites with getting voting machines to work and with scanning ballots, along with certain locations not having enough poll workers and equipment.
In a statement last month, Abbott said "voters in Harris County deserve to know what happened" during the election.
"Integrity in the election process is essential," he said. "To achieve that standard, a thorough investigation is warranted."
Menefee said these issues are not unheard of in counties of Harris' size. It has roughly 4.7 million residents.
"When you have that many people involved in the election process you are going to have issues pop up," he said.
Menefee said the county has "always had logistical and operational issues," due to the fact that the county has to run hundreds of polling sites every election. He said that's been true when both Democrats and Republicans ran elections there.
The issue of intent is key
Daniel Griffith — senior policy director for Secure Democracy USA, an election policy advocacy group — said proving intent could be a hurdle to any criminal charges.
"In order to make out something that rises to the criminal level, they would have to prove really a premeditated intent," he told NPR.
According to at least one of the sections of the election code cited by the Texas secretary of state's office, "a person commits an offense if the person is responsible for distributing election supplies for an election and intentionally fails to distribute any of the supplies by the deadline."
Menefee said he believes the investigation is not going to find evidence that there was any intent among county staff to create problems for voters in 2022.
"I am sure when the smoke clears on this you are not going to find any examples of people trying to break the law or trying to sabotage our elections," he said. "Instead you are going to find errors with good people trying to do good work."
Increased criminalization of elections
Ultimately what is happening in Texas, Griffith said, is part of a larger trend in Republican-led states. He said there has been an increase in criminalizing elections.
"These issues I think are being used to a certain extent to justify this additional involvement of law enforcement," Griffith said.
He pointed to Florida state leaders recently creating an elections crimes unit and Georgia lawmakers expanding law enforcement investigatory power in elections, which he says could intimidate voters and election workers.
In Texas, the state's Republican attorney general, Ken Paxton, has charged a record number of people with alleged voter fraud. GOP state lawmakers have also passed new laws that increase potential criminal penalties against voters and election workers. Voting rights advocates have said many of these criminal offenses are related to innocent mistakes people make while casting ballots.
Griffith said instead of criminal investigations, state leaders in Texas should be working with Harris County officials to solve the problems they are facing — which could include more funding and resources for the large county.
"The atmosphere right now does not allow for those conversations," he said. "The involvement of law enforcement only increases the inability to communicate and officials to cooperate."
This escalation in tension comes right as Texas lawmakers are preparing for a legislative session early next year. In the past few sessions, Harris County elections have been the focus of many hearings and even prominent voting measures.
Griffith said Texas lawmakers have already pre-filed bills that would increase law enforcement involvement in state elections.
He said he's also worried this new investigation is a precursor to the state playing a bigger role in Harris County elections, similar to certain efforts in Georgia.
Menefee said this is a concern of his, as well.
"It's definitely a fear that we have here in Harris County that the state of Texas is going to use all these basic errors as a pretext to take over our elections," he said.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.