When Harris County’s new elections administrator starts the job next month, he will have less than three months to get ready before polls open on Oct. 24 for early voting in the November election. On top of the tight timeline, he will run his first Harris County election under intense scrutiny from political insiders who will watch to see whether the county repeats its mistakes from the March primary.
There is work to be done to prevent those and other missteps in the upcoming November election, according to a new report commissioned by the county to look for weak spots in the March primary. The findings point to numerous changes Harris County could make, such as improving training and resources for workers and voters, strengthening recruitment of election workers, and streamlining operations.
Clifford Tatum — the county election commission’s pick to replace outgoing administrator Isabel Longoria — faces a daunting timeline until the November election, but he will not be starting from scratch; Beth Stevens, chief director of voting for Harris County, is serving as interim administrator and overseeing plans for November until he is in place.
Tatum brings significant elections experience to the table — he served as general counsel for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission from 2015 to 2019. He is the former executive director of the District of Columbia Board of Elections and served as the interim director for the Georgia State Elections Division.
He succeeds Longoria, who resigned just days after the March primary amid criticism over slow reporting of results and the county elections office’s failure to include 10,000 ballots in the initial count on election night.
The draft report from the research firm Fors Marsh Group offers a glimpse behind the scenes of the primary election — and an accounting of the many challenges the county elections office faces as employees adapt to new leadership, new voting machines and new state laws.
Before Commissioners Court created the appointed elections administrator in October 2020, the county clerk and tax assessor-collector managed voter registration and elections in Harris County. Longoria took on the newly-created position just as the county began to roll out its new voting machines in May 2021.
According to the report, executives at Hart InterCivic — the company that makes the county’s voting machines — pointed to several reasons behind difficulties in the March primary, such as “the transition of electronic to paperbased voting, compounded by the creation of a new Elections Office, the pandemic, and the lack of funding for execution of an effective training and voter education effort.”
A survey of Harris County election judges and poll workers included in the report showed 91 percent were satisfied with the instructors who trained them and the answers they received. However, only 66 percent of those who served as election judges in March thought the training was sufficient, while 35 percent of first-time election judges and poll workers said they did not feel adequately prepared to serve in the election.
Voters would benefit from training on the new machines, too. According to the report, however, “much of the funding initially planned for education and outreach had to be repurposed as part of the office’s internal budgeting process in order to meet other pressing elections needs.”
There also is room to improve how election judges and poll workers are recruited, according to the report.
Many election workers were recruited at the last minute for the March primary, the report revealed; 30% were recruited three to four weeks before the election, and 29% recruited one to two weeks before the election.
The report indicates Harris County could streamline its election operations by switching to joint primaries. In Harris County, the Democratic and Republican primaries are operated separately at each voting location, with separate lines and separate machines. In the March primary election, the county had 90 voting locations open during early voting and 375 locations on Election Day, but the report suggested the county really operates double those numbers since each polling place housed two separate primaries: “This system effectively meant setting up and managing 750 polling locations on Election Day, each with its own equipment pick-ups and drop-offs.”
Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said his office is working to hire an outside firm for a countywide voter education program that would cover the new voting machines, the voter registration process and changes in state law.
“Also, our Precinct One community engagement team is working right now on an election worker recruitment campaign to ensure that our elections have robust and well-trained staff,” he said.
Ellis added the elections office could need additional funding to make the recommended changes.
“Ultimately, these plans and other changes will require resources,” Ellis said. “I hope my colleagues and taxpayers understand that elections are difficult and expensive work in this climate. If we care enough about democracy, which we all should, we have to put our money where our mouth is.”
Asked what changes the county should make based on the report, both Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey and Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said the solution is to get rid of the elections administrator position created in 2020.
“One actionable measure for Commissioners Court is to return responsibilities back over to the County Clerk and Tax Assessor Collector offices,” Ramsey said. “The voters should be electing who runs the elections, not the court or the Elections Commission. We are four months away from the next election. I am forecasting disaster.”
The last three county clerks to oversee elections faced criticism of their own. During Stan Stanart’s tenure, the county struggled with long lines and limited polling hours. Diane Trautman, who ousted Stanart in 2018, was
criticized for slow election results and, like Stanart, received pushback for long lines. Interim County Clerk Chris Hollins contended with multiple lawsuits related to mail ballots and drive-through voting.
Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia attributed the difficulties in the March primary to growing pains. “On the logistical side, utilizing NRG for the drop-off and vote count should be made permanent and expanded.
In regards to staffing, we believe the county volunteer program seemed to help, but we look to our new election administrator to tell us what they need to effectively run an election,” he said.
A Harris County election staffer prepares to run a report on a voting scanner after it came into the Harris County Election Technology Center Wednesday, March 2,
2022 in Houston.