Election Day Problems Inflame Voter Fraud Conspiracies in Houston

Republicans have seized on issues that voters encountered at the polls in Texas’s largest county last week to push for state intervention and more policing of elections.

Michael Barajas   |    November 17, 2022

Election officials in Harris County (Harris County Elections/Facebook)

Some of the most notorious election deniers in Texas rallied outside the Harris County government building in downtown Houston Tuesday, while dozens of angry people waited inside for their turn at the mic to chastise county commissioners and local election officials. Among the shouting and calls for order during the meeting, one woman issued a biblical denunciation, pulling from the Book of Ezekiel: “The rulers will be helpless and in despair, trembling in fear… I will bring on them the evil they have done to others and they will receive the punishment they so richly deserve.” Another woman was even more cryptic. “You guys have been caught, you just don’t know it,” she said without elaboration. “You have no idea what’s coming your way.” 

At issue were the problems that voters experienced in Texas’s largest county last week. At least one polling place opened late, and some ran out of ballot paper. It remains unclear how widespread the problems were, but the Houston Chronicle reported that roughly three percent of the county’s 782 polling places experienced ballot paper shortages last week. 

Those problems followed others that occurred during the March primaries and ultimately forced the resignation of Harris County’s previous elections administrator and fueled baseless conservative conspiracies about voter fraud. Last week’s Election Day glitches have further inflamed bogus claims of stolen elections while also exacerbating an ongoing feud between state GOP leaders and Texas’ largest and increasingly left-leaning county. 

On Monday, local Republican party officials sued Harris County Elections Administrator Cliff Tatum, whom the county hired barely two months before early voting started for the November election, accusing him of violating election laws. The GOP chairman of the Texas House elections committee has called for Tatum to be prosecuted and jailed. Republican Governor Greg Abbott has issued a statement calling for a state investigation of elections in Harris County—a county that, thanks to a sweeping voting law that Abbott signed just last year, was already subject to a full post-election state audit. Local DA Kim Ogg, a Democrat who frequently clashes with county commission members from her own party, has reportedly now opened a criminal investigation

In a brief presentation during Tuesday’s commission meeting, Tatum acknowledged problems with paper shortages at some polling places and the delayed opening of one vote center. He also told commissioners his office is currently speaking with the election judges overseeing each of the nearly 800 polling places to deliver a full report to county officials, and said that Election Day underscored the “dire need” for some improvements, like a system for tracking and monitoring requests for voting machine maintenance at polling places. 

“We are a transparent organization, there is nothing for us to hide,” Tatum told commissioners.

Voting rights advocates in Texas believe the GOP is misdirecting attention. “I can save a lot of taxpayer dollars from being wasted on this sham investigation by telling you now that these problems were a result of Republican politicians refusing for decades to properly invest in our state’s election infrastructure,” Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of Common Cause Texas, told Bolts

“There seem to have been some mistakes made but all these investigations and legal challenges are more about manufacturing justifications for new voting restrictions, not about trying to make sure everyone is able to vote in the future,” he said. 

There is recent history for Texas Republicans fanning the flames of controversy against Harris County to tighten its election procedures. In 2021, the GOP’s election omnibus law banned innovations that Harris County implemented during the 2020 election to try and increase voting access during the pandemic, including 24-hour voting locations and drive-thru polling places. 

Republicans retained control of the legislature last week, and Texas is now on the eve of a new state legislative session that could bring yet more changes to state election laws targeting Harris County. Among the election bills that lawmakers have already filed ahead of the new session, which starts in January, is proposed legislation from Houston-area Republicans that would direct the secretary of state to appoint state police officers as “election marshals” to investigate voting during elections. 

State Senator Paul Bettencourt, a Republican who filed the legislation earlier this week, pointed to the problems in Harris County last week in a statement touting the bill, saying, “What happened in the November 8th election in Harris County is absolutely abominable and can NEVER happen again.” But Gutierrez called it “disingenuous at best” to frame the bill as a response to the issues that Houston voters experienced last week. “Are these election marshals going to manufacture paper when poll sites run out?” he said. “The obvious answer to prevent this from happening again is for the state to adequately fund our election infrastructure, not create some new army of election police.”

The proposal is part of a broader trend by conservatives in Texas and across the country to police elections and voting. Last year, after the state’s new election law emboldened partisan poll watchers, Harris County GOP officials started building what they’ve called an “army” to monitor busy urban vote centers in Houston. Election deniers in Texas have also worked with Republican officials to raise money to hire private cops to monitor voting, though such efforts have proven disastrous in the past. Among the protesters at the Harris County meeting on Tuesday was Steven Hotze, a far-right Houston activist who was criminally indicted earlier this year for his role in a bizarre voter fraud investigation that ended in an innocent person being run off the road and held at gunpoint. 

Hotze, who rallied protesters outside the county government building on Tuesday, also spoke at the commission meeting, claiming without providing evidence that his “computer experts” had discovered thousands of voters who were ineligible to cast ballots. “The Eighth Commandment says thou shall not steal,” Hotze said. “We have no other choice but to believe this election was severely undermined if not stolen by those who are in charge of the election.” 

Heading into Election Day, Republicans were hopeful that they would ride a red wave to wrestle back more control of the local government in Harris County, which has drifted blue over the past decade. They spent millions trying to defeat County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the county’s chief executive, but Hidalgo prevailed against her GOP challenger last week. Democrats also flipped a seat on the five-member county commission.

Tom Ramsey, who will be the only remaining Republican on the court, called for intervention into Harris County elections by state GOP leaders. “We are a subpart of the state, and when we don’t do our business correctly, whether it’s run elections or the many other things that we do as a county, then the state gets to come in and play,” Ramsey said during the meeting. “I suspect the state’s gonna come in and play and deal with it and that’s what they should do.”

Hidalgo, meanwhile, begged GOP politicians to turn down their rhetoric around voter fraud and wait for a full accounting of whatever problems voters experienced last week. “We know that these claims and these issues are explosive,” she said at the meeting. “We know that people can be driven by false allegations to storm the Capitol of the United States, to hang a noose for the vice president, certainly they can be driven to do I-don’t-know-what kind of behavior here.”

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