HOUSTON (AP) — A Texas judge has denied a Republican effort to overturn election results in the nation’s third-most populous county, a Democratic stronghold that’s been beset by GOP efforts to dictate how ballots are cast.
A losing GOP candidate in a November judicial race had filed a lawsuit calling for a new election in her contest in Harris County, where Houston is located. Republican Erin Lunceford blamed her defeat on ballot shortages and allegations that illegal votes were cast.
But visiting Judge David Peeples ruled Thursday against the lawsuit’s request for a new election. His decision came months after a two-week trial in August in which no GOP voters came forward to testify they were unable to vote because of the problems.
The ruling is a blow to efforts by GOP leaders in Harris County to overturn November 2022 election results in 17 other local contests. It follows similar court challenges that have become more common around the country following baseless conspiracy theories spread by former President Donald Trump and his supporters alleging the 2020 presidential election was stolen by President Joe Biden’s backers.
Elections have been scrutinized for several years now in Harris County — which has nearly 5 million residents, most of whom are Latino or Black.
Problems have included long lines, poll worker shortages and ballots that weren’t counted the day of the election.
In the race at the center of the lawsuit, Lunceford was running to become a local judge and lost by more than 2,700 votes out of over 1 million cast. The lawsuit was the first filed over Harris County’s November 2022 election results that went to trial.
During the trial, Lunceford’s lawyers alleged paper ballot shortages targeted Republican voting locations. They also alleged other mistakes — including delayed poll openings at some locations, improper ballot scanning and inadequate reviews of forms voters fill out if there are questions about their residency in the county — prevented people from voting or let illegal votes be cast.
Lawyers for Tamika Craft, who won the election to be the judge of the 189th district court, argued the lawsuit is part of the Harris County Republican Party’s “master plan” to challenge election results, even before the election was held. They said the lawsuit is less about election integrity and more of a partisan push to disenfranchise thousands of voters.
Craft’s lawyers argued the GOP was trying to have ballots thrown out over simple mistakes on documents filled out by voters, including missing zip codes or addresses written in the wrong location.
During questioning by Craft’s lawyers, one of Lunceford’s experts admitted he had done “sloppy” work and had been wrong in claiming that some voters had cast illegal ballots.
After the November 2022 election, 21 GOP candidates filed lawsuits challenging their losses. Three of them have since dropped their cases. A GOP candidate who lost his race to be a state legislator from the Houston area had a separate election challenge dismissed in January by the Texas House speaker.
Harris County in recent years has become a recurring target of new Texas voting rules and restrictions passed by GOP lawmakers.
In 2021, the Republican-controlled Legislature passed laws banning drive-thru and 24-hour voting. Both initiatives were championed by Harris County and credited with increasing voter turnout.
Earlier this year, the Legislature passed two election-related laws that only impact Harris County. One allows the state to take over elections in the county if problems recur and the other eliminated the county’s top election office.
Harris County, like much of the rest of Texas, previously voted Republican. But in the last decade or so, demographic changes in the county have been trending toward residents who are younger and minorities, groups who tend to vote Democratic, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. The state’s other large urban areas, like Dallas, El Paso and San Antonio, also vote Democratic.
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Juan A. Lozano, The Associated Press