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Harris County clerk says office resorted to natural disaster contingency plan on election night

State officials say claims of rule change untrue

HOUSTON – The Harris County Clerk said her office had to resort to a "natural disaster contingency plan" to tally votes because of a last-minute edict from the secretary of state's office. This resulted in a 12-hour delay in declaring unofficial election results after polls closed Tuesday, she said. 

The county clerk, Dr. Diane Trautman said her office became aware of a memo from Secretary of State Ruth Hughs' Office five days before the election. The memo itself was dated Oct. 23, after early voting had already begun. 

The memo required police officers to escort ballot boxes from more than 700 polling locations to a central counting station to be tallied. In previous years, the ballot boxes were sent to 10 counting locations and the tallies would be sent electronically. 

Trautman said her office tried to get a waiver from the secretary of state's office but it was denied. As a result, her team resorted to a contingency plan that had been created in the event of an emergency. 

Late Tuesday night, Trautman's office issued a statement standing by the system they'd used previously. 

"We are disappointed that we were not able to use the same system we utilized for the May election, the same system used by my predecessor in the last November election," officials wrote in the statement. On Wednesday, Trautman maintained her stance. 

When pressed on why she thought Hughs had sent the last-minute mandate, Trautman conceded that her motivations may have been political. 

"It would seem to be some kind of political pressure was put on them to backtrack everything they had told us," Trautman said. 

Secretary of State's Office responds to questions about rule change

The Secretary of State's Office sent KPRC 2 a copy of a letter it sent late Wednesday in response to an inquiry from State Sen. Carol Alvarado (D-Houston). Alvarado's letter asked for an explanation of the office's change in the rules.

READ: Alvarado's letter | Secretary of State's response to Alvarado's letter

In response to Alvarado's letter, Keith Ingram, director of the state elections division, wrote that the state "did not change or issue new requirements for yesterday's election as alleged".

Ingram continued:

"Texas Election Code Section 129.054 prohibits voting systems from being connected to 'any external communications network.'  Importantly, the Texas Election Code also provides that counties may use remote substations to collect and communicate results, but that they must do so in the manner prescribed by the Secretary of State. Section 127.1231(b).

"It appears Harris County was proposing to implement a process that conflicted with these laws."

Ingram said an advisory was issued Oct. 23 to "formalize guidance" previously issued to counties in April over an issue unrelated to Harris County's transmission of results. 

State officials said they had discussions with Harris County's deputy for elections and its software vendor in early October, but denied knowing or approving of the plan to use an intranet. 

Ingram wrote:

"Harris County did not disclose their plan in any of their correspondence with our office regarding their use of the countywide polling place program. While counties are required to establish and implement a written central counting station plan in accordance with Section 127.007, that plan is not required to be filed or approved by our office. We did not review or approve Harris County's plan for this election."

Former Harris County clerk responds

Trautman, a Democrat, has repeatedly said that her plan was the same that was used by her predecessor, Republican Stan Stanart. 

Stanart called the claim untrue. 

"That's totally wrong," Stanart said. "The communication we did over secure modems, point-to-point to a computer, not going across any internet, was in election law allowed. Going across a landline internet or intranet is not the same. It's actually prohibited by Texas election code."