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Report: Understaffing, inexperience led to Election Day woes in Denton County

This story was updated at 10:06 a.m. Friday to include the letter sent from the Texas secretary of state's office.

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An understaffed elections administration department with inexperienced employees led to an avalanche of errors during November's general election in Denton County, according to a letter sent to county officials from the Texas secretary of state's office Thursday.

In December, Denton County commissioners requested the secretary of state's office conduct a formal review of the county's election processes following a disastrous general election the month prior.

Throughout the course of the election, there were equipment glitches, inaccurate signage at polling places relating to voter identification information and incorrect ballot stocks being sent to several polling locations on Election Day. Counted paper ballots that were bundled with untabulated ballots led to a court-ordered recalculation of returns followed by vote retabulations.

On Thursday, Keith Ingram, director of the elections division with the secretary of state's office, sent a letter to County Judge Mary Horn outlining a series of observations made when state officials visited Denton County in February.

In his letter, Ingram detailed voting equipment being deployed to polling locations in incorrect modes -- such as "test" mode or "election day" mode when the equipment was designated for early voting -- which led to a delay in voting the first day of early voting and ballots that could not be scanned on Election Day.

Also noted were the wrong ballots being sent to several polling places and incorrect voter identification signage appearing at polling places throughout the course of the elections.

Officials with the secretary of state's office met with Denton County elections staff, Horn and representatives from the county Republican and Democratic parties to assess the county's elections procedures Feb. 9. State officials also spoke with Frank Phillips, the county's current elections administrator, and his predecessor, Lannie Noble, who oversaw the November election, according to the letter.

Shortly after the election, three employees, including Noble were ousted, and Phillips, who ran the department before leaving to run the Tarrant County elections office, was rehired. One of the employees terminated, who worked in the elections warehouse, later was reinstated.

Since Phillips' return, four employees have been added to the staff, and the department created checklists and implemented procedures to make sure vital functions are checked multiple times and by multiple people.

Also proposed is additional training and retraining of staff and department policy changes. County officials also are talking about purchasing new voting equipment, but nothing is finalized.

"We believe that the steps taken and the addition of more staff will work to prevent a recurrence of the issues that occurred in the general election," Ingram wrote. "We commend Mr. Phillips for his work with our office on this assessment and for his willingness to leave no stone unturned in improving the processes at issue."

Phillips plans to present the state's findings, as well as conclusions from an assessment he himself conducted, to the Denton County Commissioners Court on May 23.

Among the causes for the errors detailed in Ingram's letter was "insufficient staffing" that resulted in an "inadequate review of critical election processes."

At the time of the November election, the county had a technical operations manager who had been in his position since only September. The employee "did not have sufficient time to be trained fully and did not have a background in elections," according to Ingram's letter.

The employee, whose expertise was in information technology, was on a probationary contract and was terminated shortly thereafter. The employee was replaced with someone with more elections experience, and the position was renamed technical resources manager, according to Phillips.

Horn said Ingram's letter brought no surprises. County officials thought they knew all that went on with last fall's election debacle, she said, but wanted to be sure, and the letter confirmed suspicions.

Horn said she's confident the elections administration is on its way to resolving issues faced in November.

"I very much appreciate [the secretary of state's office] coming to Denton and going through this process for us," she said. "I look forward to moving on. I'm very glad we got the response."

Phillips, who came to the same conclusions in a separate assessment of the Nov. 8 election issues, said the causes leading to the election errors came back to basic things. The issues plaguing the election weren't complicated, he added.

"This was very simple," Phillips said. "We had some basic processes that weren't followed, things that weren't double and triple checked, and people that didn't do their jobs.

"That's what it boils down to. You've got to do your job."

BRITNEY TABOR can be reached at 940-566-6876.

FEATURED PHOTO: Election administration staff and poll watchers wait for more ballots to come in at the Denton County Elections Administration Building on Nov. 8.
DRC/Jeff Woo