Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick calls for new election in Harris County after voting problems in November
Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called for a redo Monday of Harris County elections after voters faced difficulties casting their ballots in November when some voting centers did not have enough ballot paper for the number of voters who came in.
“How many people went to go vote that didn’t go back? We don’t know,” Patrick said during a talk at the Magic Circle Republican Women’s Club. “So we do need to have a new election.”
A spokesperson for the secretary of state’s office said only a court order could force a redo of an election.
Patrick joins other top lawmakers like Gov. Greg Abbott, who have said the issues may have affected the outcome of the hotly contested local elections, in which County Judge Lina Hidalgo, a rising Democratic star, eked out a win against Alexandra del Moral Mealer, a well-funded GOP opponent, by only about 18,000 votes — less than 2% of the votes.
In late January, Abbott posted a local news report on social media that said the ballot paper shortage was larger than initially reported and affected 121 voting centers.
“It’s so big it may have altered the outcome of the elections,” he wrote on Twitter. “It may necessitate new elections. It WILL necessitate LAWS that prevent Harris Co. from ever doing this again.”
Patrick alluded to Abbott’s tweet. His office did not immediately respond to a request for additional context from The Texas Tribune.
During a Senate hearing last week, Secretary of State Jane Nelson said the solution to a shortage of paper ballots would have to be legislated and that Harris County's problems in November were "totally unacceptable."
Nadia Hakim, a spokesperson for the Harris County election administrator’s office, said the news report Abbott and Patrick cited in their criticism was misleading. Hakim said the report compares turnout numbers at individual voting locations in 2018, before the county allowed voters to cast ballots from any voting center in the county, to the turnout numbers in 2022, when voters had that option.
“This apples-to-kale comparison never clarifies whether any site requested or received any additional paper,” Hakim said.
She said the Harris County elections office started the November election with nearly 5 million sheets of ballot paper, and over 3 million sheets were returned after all ballots had been cast.
“There is no question that the supply of paper was more than sufficient for the 350,000 in-person voters who cast a two-page ballot on Election Day,” Hakim said, adding that additional supplies of paper ballots were delivered to locations throughout the county on Election Day.
The Harris County election office’s own report on a paper ballot shortage was inconclusive because officials said they had to rely on anecdotal information from election judges and because the county does not have a tracking system to report whether an issue at a polling place was resolved. The report notes that 68 precinct judges recalled “running out of their initial allotment of paper,” and 61 of those received additional paper. But 22 alternate judges at those locations gave conflicting information saying they had not run out of paper.
The report does not say how quickly the paper was delivered or whether there was a period during which the polling locations had no paper to take ballots.
Harris County, whose local government has flipped recently to being dominated by Democrats, has long struggled with reporting the outcome of races on election night. That’s partly because of its population size — it has nearly 4.7 million residents — and partly because of the length of its ballots, which can run multiple pages. But as the county has gone more Democratic, the attacks from state Republican leaders have grown louder.
The state’s restrictive voting law passed in 2021 banned practices like drive-thru and 24-hour voting that Democratic leaders implemented during the 2020 presidential elections, which were held during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Republican candidates for Harris County offices, including Mealer, have filed multiple lawsuits against the county to contest the results of the 2022 elections.
Court records have shed light on the Republicans' prior deliberations over whether to contest the elections. In a Jan. 3 email, Harris County GOP chair Cindy Siegel wrote to former candidates that party officials believe "there were approximately 2600 or more estimated voters turned away due to to running out of ballot paper or machines not working for a period of time." For reference, Mealer lost by roughly 18,000 votes.
Court records also turned up an email where one of the unsuccessful judicial candidates cast doubt on the viability of an election contest in the days afterward. In the Nov. 17 email, Sartaj Bal said it is “game over unless and until we have admissible evidence in our possession - going to need more than affidavits for proving up a case at trial." Bal is now among the former GOP candidates challenging their loss in court.
Reporter Alexa Ura and Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.
Disclosure: The Texas secretary of state has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.