Harris County officials call for federal intervention into state plans to send observers for Harris County general election

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Three top officials in Texas’ most populous county have asked the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division to send federal monitors to Harris County for the midterm elections to oversee what they view as an effort by Republican state officials to “chill voters’ trust in the election process” and “intimidate” election workers.

Earlier this week, the director of the Forensic Audit Division of the Texas secretary of state’s office sent a letter to Harris County election officials informing them that it would be sending “a contingent of inspectors” to observe the “central count” next week, when early voting in Texas is slated to begin. The letter said the inspectors would “perform randomized checks on election records” and that the state attorney general’s office will also “dispatch a task force … to immediately respond to any legal issues identified by secretary of state, inspectors, poll watchers, or voters.”

The teams are necessary, the secretary of state’s office said, because of their findings in an ongoing “audit” of the 2020 presidential election in Harris County, which includes Houston.

That so-called post-election audit in Texas, a state that former President Donald Trump carried in 2020, was launched as Republicans in states including Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Arizona forged ahead with partisan reviews that appeared designed to undermine the 2020 election results and demonstrate local Republicans’ fealty to Trump.

Chad Ennis, director of the Forensic Audit Division, said in the Tuesday letter to Clifford Tatum, the Harris County elections administrator, that the audit division had identified a number of mobile ballot boxes from the 2020 general election that lacked “proper chain-of-custody” and that they are requesting corrective action.

But top officials from the county, including Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, as well Harris County Democratic Party officials, are characterizing the moves by the secretary of state’s office as a ruse to “interfere” in the November general election.

Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who are both Republicans, “are working overtime to destroy voter confidence with a pressure campaign designed to intimidate our hardworking election workers and sow chaos and doubt in the election process,” Harris County Democratic Party Chair Odus Evbagharu said in a statement Thursday. He added that Tuesday’s letter from the secretary of state’s office “reads like an attack on drive-through voting, which expanded voting access during the COVID pandemic.”

“Although Harris County’s voting programs in 2020 were lauded by voting rights advocates, GOP state leaders have worked to shut down many of them,” Evbagharu said. “We are working with the Texas Democratic Party and have reached out to the U.S. Department of Justice to express our concerns about what appears to be a calculated assault by Republican leaders on Harris County elections.”

In their letter to Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, Menefee, Turner and Hidalgo suggested that Texas secretary of state officials are using the “audit” of the 2020 election as “pretext to disrupt election processes in the largest county in Texas.” They categorized the preliminary findings of the “audit” as producing little more than “unremarkable suggestions to improve chain-of-custody processes related to voting methods and equipment that Harris County no longer uses.”

“These actions appear designed to chill voters’ trust in the election process in Harris County, and to disrupt and intimidate local election workers as they execute their duties to ensure the 2022 election is ‘smooth and secure’ as the Texas Secretary of State described the 2020 election at the time,” the three Harris County officials wrote.

“We therefore respectfully request that the Civil Rights Division send election monitors to Harris County to ensure that Harris County residents’ voting rights are protected.”

The secretary of state’s office responded in a statement later Thursday, calling the suggestions from the three Harris County officials “completely false and a cynical distortion of the law – and the truth – in an attempt to mislead voters, members of the public, the press and the U.S. Department of Justice.”

“The Texas Secretary of State’s office has sent election inspectors to Harris County every year, and have never before seen a request for the Department of Justice to ‘monitor the monitors,’” Sam Taylor, spokesperson for the secretary of state’s office, said in the statement, adding that the request “is being used to spread false information about the actual duties of our election inspectors – dedicated public servants who will be present in Harris County to observe only and to ensure transparency in the election process from beginning to end.”

Taylor also told CNN in an interview that the inspectors are employees of the secretary of state’s office or other state agencies, but cannot be there on behalf of an elected official. The inspectors are permitted to observe, but not allowed to interact with voters – or to speak to anyone other than the presiding judge at the election location.

“We send them to many other counties, large and small, every single year,” Taylor said. “If 15 registered voters or more request election inspectors to be present in their county, we are required to send them – so they’re actually a very common practice that our office has every year – basically just to have eyes on the ground in a lot of these large elections where there are disputes over whether or not proper election protocol and laws are being followed.”

Taylor said he did not immediately know how many inspectors would be sent to Harris County.