This week, Alliance for Securing Democracy launched “Ballots and Bagels: Conversations with Trusted Election Sources,” an interview series hosted by Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine that aims to highlight the successes of and lessons learned from the 2022 U.S. primary elections by talking to people who help protect them.

For the inaugural interview, David spoke with Isabel Longoria, Harris County, Texas’ elections administrator. They talked about the vote counting process and voter education following Texas’ March 1 primary.  

Read the full interview transcript. Here are the key takeaways from the interview:

Vote counters should prioritize accuracy over speed

Under state law, once the polls close on election night, every Texas county must continuously count their ballots until every ballot has been counted. All Texas counties are required to report early and Election Day results within 24 hours of the polls closing. According to Longoria, such requirements are unnecessary and can be hard to satisfy, particularly in large jurisdictions like Harris County, Texas, where there are 367,000 votes, 720,000 pieces of equipment, and 350 sites to account for.  “We cannot start until after 7pm [after] all of the voters are through,” Longoria said. “Long gone is the time where everything is counted by 10 p.m. on election night.”

Election results in many states, including Texas, are not made official until weeks after Election Day, when election administrators complete an official canvass and certify the results. Requiring election officials to continuously count ballots after Election Day to meet a quick deadline can increase the likelihood of ballot counting errors resulting from fatigue, which may have contributed to Harris County’s initial failure to include 10,000 ballots in its original tabulation of unofficial results. According to Longoria, Harris County election officials reportedly worked 40 hours straight, slept for a few hours, and then returned for another 36-hour shift to try to meet the state’s deadline. “We were dealing with exhaustion, political and communication pressure,” explained Longoria. “That’s why the arbitrary 24-hour rule from 30 years ago [is problematic]. I’ll add that this mistake has happened in [previous elections in] 2018 and in 2020.”

Harris County’s delay in reporting some of its unofficial results also stemmed from its need to correct thousands of damaged ballot sheets following Election Day—a foreseeable byproduct of a two-page ballot, a relatively new voting system that many voters encountered for the first time, and a reduced budget for conducting voter outreach ahead of the primary.

Election results are often not known on election night, and that is rarely an indication of something nefarious. More often, it is due to careful processes election officials employ to mitigate errors and ensure that vote counting is done properly. For example, after receiving more than 1,600 damaged ballot sheets from its voters, many of whom were less familiar with Harris County’s new paper-based voting system, county election workers had to undergo a time-consuming and painstaking process of duplicating these ballots before scanning and tabulating them,   which contributed to its delayed reporting.

Election officials often require several days to weeks to certify elections’ final results in order to ensure every legally-cast vote is accurately counted.  Despite intense pressure from the public and elected officials to produce results in a timely manner, it is more important for election officials to get the count right than to push out the results too quickly.  

Proposed solutions:

  • Lawmakers should remove requirements to unofficially count ballots continuously.
  • Lawmakers should eliminate requirements to unofficially count some portion of the ballots before the results are certified.
  • Lawmakers should set a deadline to unofficially count all ballots, including Election Day votes, early votes, provisional ballots, and/or mail-in ballots.
  • Election officials should rely more on automated results reporting systems to count votes, which can help identify irregularities and are less prone to error.

Voters need to be better educated about election processes

“The real struggle we face in elections is the narrative is much more around election mis[information] than it is around election administration,” Longoria said. Many voters do not have a strong understanding of election processes, and this lack of knowledge can be exploited to decrease voter confidence in the election process and results.

During the 2020 election cycle and its aftermath, many elected officials have exploited this knowledge deficit to falsely claim that U.S. elections are illegitimate or suspect, and this distrust shows few signs of dissipating as the 2022 midterm cycle unfolds. Unfortunately, the Harris County elections office was forced to cut its primary election budget to counter such efforts and more broadly educate the public about the election process—a decision Longoria regrets.

According to Longoria, “You can’t cut back on education. It’s not just fun posts about the voter registration deadline coming. We [have] to do [education] about complex changes to mail ballot laws.” Longoria cited recently adopted state legislation that required primary voters to provide a partial Social Security number or driver’s license number on their mail ballot application and on the return envelope with their mail ballot. This number also had to match what was on the voter’s voter registration record and contributed to a 12-factor jump in mail ballot rejections from the previous election. “Providing education is not considered a core function, and that’s one thing I wish we could shift from a policy or goal perspective,” Longoria said.

Longoria also alleged that she and her colleagues had to contend with members of the media who, in some instances, were more focused on searching for problems with Harris County’s election process than on reporting how the election was actually unfolding, which she worries could impact voter confidence. “There is this impulse for people [to be] on high alert to lookout for what is wrong or what is failing,” Longoria explains. “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?’” Longoria said.

The failure of Harris County election officials to include 10,000 ballots in its original tabulation was a serious oversight, but it should not have been leveraged to cast additional, baseless doubt on the legitimacy of Harris County’s elections.

Proposed Solutions:

  • Elected officials should consult closely with election officials to ensure they have the resources they need to conduct proactive outreach communications and update education content for a given election.
  • Lawmakers should closely consider the implementation period needed to successfully implement and inform others of changes to election processes rather than only consider changes that would improve their election processes.

The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.