First of Harris County Election Contests Lawsuits Nearing An End

Presiding Judge David Peeples will hear closing arguments from the defense and prosecution Thursday morning.
Presiding Judge David Peeples will hear closing arguments from the defense and prosecution Thursday morning. Screenshot
After concluding a week’s worth of hearing testimony from both sides in a case attempting to overturn a county judicial race’s election result, attorneys will have one last ditch effort to support their claims while making closing arguments on Thursday morning at the Harris County Civil Courthouse.

Erin Lunceford, a Republican party judicial candidate, is challenging her loss against 189th District Judge Tamika Craft, who was the Democrat incumbent and defeated Lunceford by 2,473 votes.

Lunceford's lawsuit is the first of 20 other election contests, all filed by GOP candidates to throw out the outcomes of the Harris County November 2022 election due to allegations that primarily Republican voters were turned away because of ballot paper shortages and other operational issues at polling locations in their precincts.

This is the basis of the argument for many of these cases; however, Lunceford’s legal team also questioned the legality of thousands of votes cast on ballots that were mailed in, were provisional or required the voter to fill out a statement of residence (required when a residential address doesn’t match the voter registration address.)

Andy Taylor, Lunceford’s lead attorney, also brought up approximately 2,000 ballots that he argued should be discounted as they were cast after a judge wrongfully ordered polling locations to remain open for an additional hour on election night.

Craft’s attorneys took issue with Taylor’s additional attempts to prove that these votes were cast illegally and that county officials had violated the Texas Election Code – as Lunceford’s team had initially said their efforts aimed at showing the issues at the Election Day polling locations.

Taylor still did cite their analysis of these problems, which found at least 29 polling locations – instead of the nearly 20 previously reported – had turned away about 3,000 voters on Election Day.

Victoria Williams, an election worker, testified on behalf of the plaintiff and said that almost 200 people were turned away at the polling location she was at – and she could not confirm whether or not they decided to go to cast their vote at another.

Lunceford’s team presented Steve Carlin, a business and technology consultant, as another key witness as he assisted with the search for ballots missing signatures, dates, addresses or other legally required information.

However, Craft’s attorneys, led by Houston-based lawyer Kevin Haynes, pointed out that many of the mail-in ballots evaluated and determined as “illegally cast” were not. Many that Carlin had marked as “out of county” were within the county and appeared to be from residences of college students – including some sent from nearby the Texas Southern University’s bookstore – and military members.

Throughout court proceedings, Craft’s lawyers often took issue with the background of many of the “expert” witnesses on the plaintiff’s side. They claimed Carlin and the others did not have the legal authority to testify as they were not well-versed in election law.

Instead, the defense lawyers said they were GOP members attempting to further an ongoing narrative against county officials’ ability to operate elections.

Before shifting to the trial's defense phase, Craft’s attorneys attempted to dismiss the case altogether. Judge David Peeples, the presiding judge visiting from San Antonio, denied the motion.

Melissa Mcdonough and Sarah Syed, Democratic members of Harris County’s signature verification committee, testified on behalf of the defense and contradicted claims by Kay Tyner – a Republican member who also stood witness – that they were not provided with proper instructions to check signatures.

The defense’s final witness was Beth Stevens, an election law expert who worked for former Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins and past Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria. Stevens closed out testimony by citing the Texas Election Code’s expectations in an election contest lawsuit.

She said according to the code, Lunceford's legal team had failed to meet the burden of proof – which states the contestant had to prove by clear and convincing evidence that illegal voting occurred and that votes were illegally cast in the challenged race.

Following Steven’s testimony, both sides rested their respective cases and agreed to reconvene Thursday at 9 a.m., when they would each have an hour and a half to give their closing arguments.

According to Mark Jones, professor of political science at Rice University, the outcome of this case will likely indicate the results of the others to come.

“This is the case that is one of the most competitive ones, where the vote difference separating the two candidates is the smallest,” he said. “So, if you can’t prove that there were a sufficient number of votes that would have changed the outcome of this election, I don’t think you will be able to do it for any of the other elections.”

Jones said it is extremely rare for a court to overturn an election unless there is strong evidence that the race in question is deeply flawed to the point that the results cannot be trusted. Which is not the situation in this case, he said.

He compared the likelihood of the ruling to be in the Republican’s interest in this case to the chance Democrat plaintiffs have in ongoing litigation over Senate Bill 1750 – legislation that would effectively abolish the role and office of current Harris County Elections Administrator Clifford Tatum.

“Just as these Republican plaintiffs don’t have much of a case in their goal of attaining a whole new election, neither do Democrats have a case in overturning the two Republican laws,” Jones said. “Both the legal challenges are primarily politically motivated, knowing full well that their chances of success are remote.”
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Faith Bugenhagen is on staff as a news reporter for The Houston Press, assigned to cover the Greater-Houston area.