“Ballots and Bagels: Conversations with Trusted Election Sources” is a series by the Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD) hosted by Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine. Given that a large portion of Americans still think the 2020 election was stolen, it is more important than ever to amplify voices that can help restore trust and articulate new challenges for 2022. This series aims to discuss the successes of and lessons learned from the 2022 U.S. primary elections by talking to the people whose job is to help protect them.
For the inaugural part of the series, we spoke to Isabel Longoria, the elections administrator for Harris County, Texas.
The conversation has been edited for clarity.
David Levine: Good afternoon and welcome to “Ballots and Bagels: Conversations with Trusted Election Sources,” a series from the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy, where we’ll discuss the security of U.S. elections in the runup to the 2022 midterms with people who help protect them, including officials who actually run them. My name is David Levine, and I’m the elections integrity fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy and your host. For our inaugural episode, I’d like to welcome Harris County, Texas’ elections administrator, Isabel Longoria.
The Harris County Commissioners Court chose Longoria as the county’s first elections administrator after creating the position in late 2020. Proponents argue that appointing an independent, nonpartisan elections administrator—as several other large Texas cities have done—would result in smoother elections. Unfortunately, the 2022 Texas primary election conducted on March 1st did not go as smoothly as hoped for in many places, including Harris County. And some of the issues that arose subsequently led elections administrator Longoria to resign, effective July 1st. If you tuned into the U.S. House’s congressional hearing on the Texas primaries, you could be forgiven for thinking the hearing was a tale of two countervailing narratives. According to Democrats, the issues were largely a result of the 2020 presidential election and its aftermath, including the passage of S.B. 1, the controversial state law adopted last year that made sweeping changes to how Texas’ primary was conducted. Republicans, on the other hand, would say that the issues were largely a result of local official failures, including in Harris County. The truth is neither narrative is entirely accurate, and I look forward to discussing this and more with Harris County’s elections administrator. Isabel, thanks for joining me.
Isabel Longoria: Thanks David. I’m looking forward to just sharing everything we can about Houston and Harris County.
DL: I’m looking forward to it. Let’s jump right in. Some long-time election officials I’ve spoken with have noted the sharp contrast between administering elections now and before the 2020 election cycle. Specifically, they’ve noted that their offices now are under much greater scrutiny and are often subject to abuse, harassment, and even death threats, sadly. While you haven’t been an election administrator—or you weren’t one before 2020—you’ve certainly encountered a whole host of challenges since assuming your position. Can you tell our listeners briefly your motivation for becoming an elections administrator and what administering elections since late 2020 has been like, both before and after the adoption of S.B. 1?
IL: Oh boy. I’ll try. That’s, in a nutshell, been my last two years. Isabel Longoria, the Harris County elections administrator. The first appointed. The first office created right after the November 2020 presidential election—just a couple weeks later they created the office to put me in it. So, it’s been interesting. I served during the presidential [election] as a special advisor on voting rights. You know, my passion for doing this work is a little cheesy—a little wonky. I’m a self-professed election wonk. My grandparents [and] parents are immigrants—my dad is from Mexico; my mom is from France. My French grandparents, they, my grandma was I believe one of the first women city council members in Fort-Mardyk, France. And she and my grandfather, they dressed up every year as Mr. and Mrs. Clause. She was part of her city council in a township of definitely under 20,000 folks. The spirits of public service run deep in my family. I literally cannot imagine anything else in my life than doing something that is of service to others. My father grew up in the Catholic tradition, of which service is a big principle of that. He also had family members who ran for office; most famously his uncle ran for mayor of Nuevo Laredo—a contentious area, border town. He was winning on election night and then federal police came, got him, put him in jail, and two days later low and behold as they recounted the ballots, he lost. So, there’s definitely this kind of interesting—not that it was intentional—interesting narrative in my family about service, but also about transparency, accountability and we know, we’ve got kind of real-life examples of democracy gone wrong, right?
When we talk about the bureaus of democracy in the United States, there’s a lot of what-ifs. What if there’s fraud? What if there’s hackers? What if there’s double-voting? I come from families where that has happened. [Where] there is true and intentional mistrust, and a true kind of manipulation, we’ll say, of elections. So, my barometer from the beginning is, talk is cheap. There’s a lot of what ifs in the world that we can prepare for. But let’s look at the real things we’re fighting against, and I would say that perhaps summarizes [it] for me. Being—you’re right —a first-time, kind of young, professional in this world and, I’d like to think, an up-and-comer for voting rights access, now applying that to the administration side of things. That a key takeaway of things for me in 2020 and beyond, it’s not just about service. It’s not just about running elections. Like I said I’m a trained wonk. I mean, if you want to talk about, I can talk to you about the cost of our ballot paper and then how that relates to overages, the losses. How we order, all the way down to the piece of paper. How we calculate turnout—that’s what I love—spreadsheets and spreadsheets of turnout calculations, and how it applies to everything you do from buying highlighters to preparing enough machines for the locations. But a significant chunk of my time has been testifying at the Texas Legislature against big bills, where I have to disprove a negative. Someone says, “Well there could be voter fraud!” You know, there could be a lot of things. There could be an alien invasion, but the truth is, we can account for some “could bes” in the future, and we do. But the real struggle we face in elections, is [that] the narrative is so much more around election mis[information], than it is around election administration. I need money, for example, for wraps for my warehouse to more efficiently store election equipment to maximize the floor space, so that we can put people there to pass out supplies. That is a real concern I have about the election administration in Harris County.
DL: I really appreciate that. I actually didn’t realize just how personal this is to you, in addition to it, of course, being a professional calling. The wonk-nerd label you’ve given yourself—of course—is not something that is being bantered about for the first time here. Obviously the Houston Chronicle and others have spoken to that as well, but I think it’s worth noting that, as you alluded to, there were aspects of S.B. 1 that I think made the job for you and others harder. Whether it’s in term of tightening laws without adequate justification or constraining the choices that election officials could have, for example to expand access to the ballot. The flip side, of course, is that there were issues that happened in the primary that from afar didn’t look like they were necessarily directly associated with either S.B. 1 or the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election. For example, just a couple days of course after that Election Day, Harris County announced, provided their results, and they failed to include in their initial count about 10,000 mail ballots. I know that Harris County Judge Linda Hidalgo, the county’s top executive, conceded that a number of Election Day problems in Harris County were of the unforced error variety. No election is certainly perfect, but I’m hoping you can walk through some of those mistakes, some of the reasons for them, and the actions that are now being taken to remedy them for subsequent elections.
IL: I want to pull back a little bit on the unforced error part. To be sure, in any environment, and I’m the first to tell you where was our spreadsheets wrong, where could we have shifted people better. The true managerial aspects that lead to a smoother process. This idea of unforced errors, it, you’ll notice, started on Election Day at 6 p.m. The Republican Party famously put out, and then the Secretary of State, and then the Lieutenant Governor right after that, and then the Attorney General–one might even say in a coordinated effort! All of a sudden [they] put out all of this information that Election Day was a failure even before the polls closed in, and even before we got to election night and counting. So from the very beginning of election night, I had to—instead of being, you know a wonky elections administrator, making sure we were getting our flow rates on the number of cars checking in on election night—we had to spin up a whole, let’s call it a whole comms department, saying “Where is this misinformation coming at?” [and] “Where can we put out the correct information?” But I’ll tell you, the truth is not as sexy as the salacious story of the day. From the very beginning what we saw was—even the county officials were running with that story. I’ve got the judge, I’ve got the commissioners calling and saying, “Why is Election Day a failure?” And I said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa…” I, as the elections administrator, am not saying that. I don’t know where this is coming from. But already from the beginning, you are buying into a narrative that you are seeing, and are fighting a narrative that you are seeing that is out in the public, instead of taking a step back and looking at what’s happening on the ground.
On the 10,000 [ballots], I’ll shift. I want to lay the groundwork there. Before we even get to the issues of this 24-hour cycle of voting and the 10,000 ballots, there is this impulse for people being on high alert to look out for what is wrong or what is failing. I’ll lay [it] out. For early voting, we had a wonderful early voting period with typical issues. On Election Day, we had hoarders out the wazoo, walking around. I did press conferences, and all day they were saying, “Where are the lines? Where are the issues? Where are the machines malfunctioning?” I said, “I’m here with you. I’m checking these locations. We have pretty difficult things going on, [but] join me, though, in not fabricating a story where there isn’t one.” So, I want to be careful, and I’m not trying to get away [from the question]. I’m getting to the true issues; that to me seems different. Instead of reporting truly, “Here’s people voting,” from the very beginning of election day, [the media was asking] “Where are the issues? We want to focus on the issues. Where are fires to put out?”
Alright, so fast forward, famously, to our new voting machines. We have a new paper system, that is not part of Senate Bill 1. The new paper system—for the first time ever, we had two sheets of paper. Two legal-sized sheets of paper, which no other jurisdiction in the United States who uses this machine has ever had to do. And then we were the only jurisdiction in Texas who’d been using two sheets of paper, I believe. So, there is a system of just paper amount. You have paper jams—everyone who has a printer knows that. It’s working through this problem of paper jams. But when a paper jams is a voter’s vote. [We cannot] not crumple it, reprint, throw [it] away, [and] hope for the best. We have to go through a very strict procedure, which we did put in place to duplicate those ballots, to review those ballots, [and] to rescan those ballots. All best practices that we had worked out with the Secretary of State well ahead of time. What was, I think, news to the commissioners and to the media, was when they were asking about long lines and I was trying to talk about paper. They would say, “Oh yeah, yeah, yeah… sure, paper, paper, who cares.” So it’s even the ability to talk about the public perception of what is the fire they should be looking at versus the elections administrator’s fires that you should be looking at. And for us, for weeks and weeks, it was this two-paper system. How do we educate voters?
Now, on this 10,000. We get into the 24-hour cycle, where 30 years ago, the Texas Legislature created a law that says you’ve got to return your election records within 24 hours. From the very beginning, I contested this with the Republican and Democratic parties To me, I interpreted that law as meaning that all the things from the field—all your election records out of the field—have to be in the custody of the manager of election records, which is me, within 24 hours. The Republican Party—and this is just factual right—the Republican Party contended that law means that all votes have to be counted—the unofficial count, everything you have in your possession—in 24 hours. There is a sheer volume perspective, from Harris County. We had 367,000 votes, 720,000 pieces of equipment, 350 sites —and they were doubled, Democratic and Republican—so it was 700 pieces of equipment that you cannot start touching until after 7pm, when all of the voters are through, when the judges have returned that equipment to you, and it’s returned to our warehouse for secure processing. Long gone is the time where everything is counted by 10 p.m. on election night. And so that’s the other question we got. We hit 10, we hit 11, and people said, “Well you know in the past, you would have had all of the results by midnight.” There’s a lot of things that we did in the past that just aren’t applicable now. So, it’s again reframing. I never conceded it a failure. It has taken us, for every election, well into the next morning to receive all of those materials back from election judges, [and] to count the materials accurately. One thing I have in my office is accuracy over speed. I would rather take sufficient time to do it well than to rush, rush, rush and say we have something out by midnight.
DL: No and —
IL: I see you David, ask your question.
DL: No, no, no. That’s okay.
IL: That’s the main story here.
DL: No, but I think you’re, I think you’re on to a couple of important points. One of course is that this system was used in a big election for the first time. Though it had been used in a smaller election, there’s an adjustment period that folks have to go through. Not just elections officials, but voters and other stakeholders. But the other piece with this accuracy over speed thing is Harris County has a canvassing procedure, post-election canvas procedure. And I’m interested if you could speak to sort of this question about, even though there were some votes that weren’t initially reported in the unofficial results on election night, whether or not those would have been subsequently caught in the canvas. Which, you know election officials generally understand as what’s used to try and help ensure that anything, any mistakes, that may occur on election night can subsequently be remedied.
IL: Yeah, and you’re exactly right. So that’s why I was leading up to the narrative. I love David how you say ‘unofficial.’ We, as election [officials], know that everything you see on election night or during the early vote period is unofficial. It’s a snapshot. Because it takes every election jurisdiction, no matter where you are in the United States, several days after to double-check the number of voters we thought we had in. Is that the number of votes we have? If there’s any inconsistencies, is it because of provisional ballots or mail-ballots? Heck, with the new law changes in Senate Bill 1, mail-ballot voters had up until seven days after Election Day to even come in and what we call ‘cure’ or fix their mail ballot issues for it to be counted. So that’s what I’m saying, from the very beginning, election night is not where it’s at, it’s the next weeks after that. So, the 10,000 ballots. A couple days later as we’re going through our reconciliation documents—and I’ll lay it for you—my staff was up for 40 hours straight. They would sleep for four hours and then come back on for another 36-hour shift. Not intentional or planned, but there is a bit of a side story here that we have a newly created office, in a pandemic, with election law changes, with new machines, as we’re getting an ever-increasing amount of pressure, and as we’re increasing the kind of size and number of elections. So, just from the base, some fun things we [had to] deal with. We were dealing with exhaustion, political and communication pressure at that point from the parties who then were suing us, and we had to check in with the judge every several hours as to our progress.
You hit 1 a.m. and here’s exactly what happened: At 1 a.m. on Wednesday morning, our team member was scanning in mail ballots for the day. They—there’s these basically these secured hard drives called b-drives, consider them extra-secure hard drives—they had them in the tabulating machine. The tabulating machine is kind of like a scantron machine. You take all of your papers, your mail ballots, you scan them in, and it creates an electronic copy of those items to be counted. But you have to take it out of the tally machine, which is a safety feature, and put it into the counting machine for those to be counted into the record of that night. So, the person had scanned them, so all these 10,000 votes were secure. They were in our facility the entire night. They were scanned into the tally machine. At 1 a.m., at the shift change, this young kid takes it out, puts [a] “do not touch” [sign] on it so that no one else in that room would mistake it for another kind of hard drive, hands it to his peer and says, “Don’t forget to submit this into the count machine,”—which was a couple of feet away—“when you collect these others and turn it in.” The second person— again, shift change, 40 hours of working, tired out of their mind, [and] trying to catch up— puts it down, [and] later read “do not touch” and thought that it meant that they shouldn’t touch it. There you go. That’s it. I know everyone wants to think we had some nefarious thing or that we fumbled this completely. But all it was, was to move [the drive] from one machine to another, requires a court order after that 24-hour period. That is the magic. That’s why this 24-hour, arbitrary rule from 30 years ago —that says even when you have it in your possession, even when you’ve done your checks and balances, and you begin this period—that you need a court order. And I’ll add, David, and I’ll say, this mistake has happened in 2018 [and] in 2020. You can tell because the election night—unofficial election night results—from those elections to the canvas report differ by 10,000 votes. You only get that if offices had input mail ballots after the deadline. And so, the prime thing is, for the first time in Harris County history, we actually told the voters what was happening in full transparency and sought the legal remedy, which is a court order, which is not what administrations have done in the past. There it is, that is the mystery behind the 10,000 votes.
DL: No, I appreciate that and the detail and the walk-through for myself and the others who will be listening in. I was sort of hoping, that somehow a bagel, you know like on this show, would have been a solution to this, but obviously more was needed. And I’m not sure even a bagel could have overcome the sleep deprivation, obviously that was in play there. I think, Isabel, you’ve talked a good deal about some challenges and reframed some of what happened on Election Day. I think it’s important to also touch on where I think there were some successes. One of these things was the fact that even though there were many more mail ballots that were rejected in the 2022 primary, around 850 voters had ballots that were in fact, cured. And it strikes me that that may have been due, at least in part, to your office’s decision to double the number of staff doing voter outreach in response to S.B. 1. I’m hoping you can touch a little bit more on that success and explain a bit more about how you made that happen, as well as any of the other successes [Harris County is] building upon for future elections.
IL: With every election we’ve learned something that we implement by the next election. In November 2021, it was all new machines [and] that was our biggest election up to the point. We had to do online training because of COVID. Our judges told us no matter what, we want in-person training, so we pivoted, we doubled our training team, [and] we did four-to-six-hour trainings with small groups. All those best practices. Our judges never felt more prepared on these new machines.
[We also made improvements with] recruitment. We used to have four recruiters for 700 locations. We increased it to 26 recruiters—so about one recruiter for every 30 locations. Which if you look at caseloads from teachers, caseworkers, social workers, the 30:1 ratio is the golden ratio for constituent services, if you will. That went swimmingly.
For early vote, when we placed, you know Election Day again, it’s the parties who have to recruit judges. Some of them didn’t recruit judges, which means there weren’t judges or staff at those voting locations, which means some Democrat and Republicans went to voting locations and were turned away because the parties were unable to recruit the staff. That aside, we’ve tried pushing for a joint primary in the May elections, so that wouldn’t happen again. The parties refused, but we do our best.
We [also] increased voter turnout. So, if you look at 2018 compared to 2022, we increased by 30,000 people the number of people who came to vote. We increased voter registration in an off-year cycle—the first time in Harris County history that we’ve increased the raw number of registered voters in an odd-year, off-year primary. These are kind of the wonky things that I cannot express to you enough David. Yes there are procedural things, that have gone like, make sure the 1 a.m. shift change right. We’ve got an extra checklist now. You have to have a verbal and written handoff now, for anything you hand off at shift change. But, I can’t say this enough, we increased every single metric, we decreased the amount of hours it takes to process the judges at drop off time, decreased the number of judges who forget or refuse to return their equipment on time, we stayed up through the night to get their equipment back. I think that is my frustration, if you can hear David, if you look at the number, we improved every single metric as we’ve gone along. And yes, we’re implementing and improving even further for the May elections, but at this point we are improving and tweaking the kind of wonky, procedural aspects within the office. What happened on election night, and I can’t stress this enough, is I think folks who don’t understand the election system as much were able to pivot a certain message around and create a lot of confusion that, you know as you’ve seen here, it takes about 30 minutes to explain what a canvas procedure is, it’s not a five-second—maybe a blurb—and that’s what I’m communicating.
DL: No, hopefully there can be another congressional hearing on Texas elections, and they can go and get into post-election canvas procedures. Just briefly, I want to pivot to something that you’ve touched on multiple times here, which, of course is what’s actually going on versus perception. What election officials and others know is that when you have so much change happen so close to an election, and there’s potentially a lack of public awareness around the process, you have more vectors for misinformation, where people mistakenly share bad information about election processes; disinformation where people purposely share bad information to undermine voter confidence. It strikes me, hearing your remarks, that you sensed, you and your team perhaps, that some of this was going to be coming down the pike. I was interested in what you guys did to try to prepare for it, whether it was externally with your stakeholders, internally with your staff, and then how you dealt with it once you encountered it on Election Day.
IL: This is one of the things that is a little ginger to talk about. Back in October, I made a request that “We need some increased education budget. I think we need some kind of increased kind of media budget to kind of put out videos, to do social media buys, to do what we know gets in front of people’s eyeballs.” And let’s just say the county was in a money crunch, so they said what you got is what you got. And so as we started going into the November election, the December runoff election, and the March primary, we had to make cuts. And [unfortunately] one of the things we were directed to cut was the education efforts to just be able to host elections.
So if the decision in front of me was between a social media budget to educate on the new voting machines or the new mail ballot laws or a voting location in a historic Black community, it’s not a hard decision. It’s a voting location in a historic Black community. It’s the workers. Do we have enough workers to actually host an election? I know that’s a common theme across the nation for offices like mine. You can’t cut back on education. It’s not just fun posts about the voter registration deadline coming. We are having to do more [education] about complex changes to mail ballot laws. For example, now in Texas you have to include your social security [and] your driver’s license number. That is what led to, upwards at one point a 20 percent rejection rate on applications, on nearly that much for mail ballots themselves. Before the rejection rate used to be under one percent, vastly under one percent. It takes time to talk to people about these law changes and how they can fix them. It is not a quick 5-second fix. Unfortunately, I think it’s [a] more global [issue]. As you start squeezing the juice and squeezing resources from local offices, from counties, from whatever it may be across a nation, you know I have to provide voting on Election Day, that is my court function. Providing education is not considered a court function, and that’s one thing I wish we could shift from a policy or goal perspective.
DL: And that makes total sense. You know obviously one similar example in the 2020 cycle was the number of jurisdictions that thought they were going to be using money to help secure their election processes, and found that as a result of the pandemic, that they were having to shift money just to be able to ensure that they could have folks vote safely and the terrible tradeoffs that some folks had to make in order to do that. And obviously many jurisdictions had to rely on private, philanthropic dollars to get through that largely successful election.
To sort of shift now, just a couple of last questions before we finish up, this has been a really wonderful conversation. In your view, what do you think are the biggest threats to the integrity of U.S. elections today? Election security, disinformation, voter access?
IL: I think the false perception that voting is easy. [What] I hear time and time again when I talk about voting access or even disinformation is people shrug and say, “Oh well you know if you cared enough.” People care about voting. They deeply care about voting. We all understand the importance of voting. People care about voting so much that the number one issue I see preventing people from voting is what we call voter paralysis, [the idea] that people feel making the decision between two candidates is so important that they don’t have the true or right information—it’s been so politicized—that they’re not sure who to turn to for true, accurate, unfiltered information about candidates or the propositions. Again, I guess you could call it the disinformation on voter access issue. But even now when you hear from media sources, “Well that Isabel Longoria, she doesn’t know what she’s doing, don’t trust elections, don’t trust, our elections are wrong, you know, everything fundamentally is screwed,”—who that ultimately scares is the voter. You think you’re scoring cheap political points, you think “Oh memories are short. It won’t matter.” At the end of the day, voters, the public, we are all building on these memories, [wondering] “Should I be worried? Who should I vote for? Who should I believe?” So I think, and I hate the word voter apathy. It’s not apathy. People care so much they feel paralyzed by the importance of these decisions. They feel paralyzed about who they can trust now. What I’m really sad about—basically elections need to go back to being boring. Right, they should just be, just like running water, electricity, most people don’t know how it works, they don’t care, you just turn on a switch, that’s what you want. I think elections need to just go back to being these boring administrative functions, so that people know they can vote safely without being so worried.
DL: Going back to boring elections…
IL: Boring elections, just boring elections. Elections should be boring. Election Day should be exciting because people are voting, because there’s choices to be made. Not [because] media channels or political parties [are] on the hunt for “the longest line” or the “biggest fire” that day. Where are your priorities at this point? It’s a story, not on access.
DL: Well folks, Isabel Longoria, thank you for coming on to discuss the Texas primary on March 1st and good luck in your future elections.
IL: I need a bagel after this. I don’t know about you, David, but I hope that lays the groundworks. And an everything bagel with chive schmear is my go-to and my happy place.
DL: You know, I’m glad you said that, I’d forgotten to ask that at the beginning. Mine is sesame bagel, toasted, veggie cream cheese, and lox. Sounds terrible, but I’ve really been into it the last year or so. And of course, if maybe I don’t know what kind of vegetables you grow, I know I think I saw something about that, but if tomatoes is part of that—fresh, heirloom tomatoes on there is an excellent addition too.
IL: Planting the fall garden, or summer garden when I get some time.
DL: When we get a little [time] later on. Well, Isabel, it’s been an absolute pleasure. In addition to Isabel Longoria, I’d like to thank the following folks for making this interview possible: Rachael Dean Wilson, Kayla Goodson, Krysia Sikora, and Hanna Foreman, as well as Abby Foreman for her branding work. Ballots and Bagels: Conversations with Trusted Sources is a production of the Alliance for Securing Democracy. Thanks for listening in and until next time, keep faith in U.S. elections.