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Tarrant County’s celebrated elections chief resigns, citing differences with new county executive

Heider Garcia’s resignation comes in the wake of tensions with a county judge who ran his campaign on conservative election integrity and spoke of “mail ballot harvesting” and “Democrats cheating.”

A man stands against a wall, looking down at his phone
Tarrant County Election Administrator Heider Garcia looks at his phone while working Election Day at the election administration building in Fort Worth on Nov. 8, 2022. He resigned from his position Monday, April 17, 2023. (Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune)

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This story has been updated throughout with additional comment.

A North Texas elections official who was lauded by top state officials — and his critics — as one of the best administrators in the field has submitted his resignation. 

Heider Garcia, who has been the elections director in Tarrant County since 2018, told county officials his last day on the job will be June 23, after the county’s May 6 general election, according to his letter of resignation obtained by Votebeat.

The resignation comes months after a newly elected county judge, the county’s top executive, took office. Tim O’Hare ran on a campaign that prioritized election integrity and frugal spending of tax dollars. Soon after he took office he debuted a county election integrity task force, despite the lack of evidence of widespread voter fraud. 

While campaigning more than a year ago, O’Hare went on various conservative radio shows to speak about his priorities. He said “mail ballot harvesting” and “Democrats cheating” contributed to former President Donald Trump losing the 2020 election in Tarrant County. 

Garcia, in his resignation letter to county leaders, wrote, “When leadership respects the team’s values and shows trust, members of the team become the best version of themselves. … Judge O’Hare, my formula to ‘administer a quality transparent election’ stands on respect and zero politics; compromising on these values is not an option for me. You made it clear in our last meeting that your formula is different, thus, my decision is to leave.”

Garcia declined to comment for this story.

In a statement, O’Hare said Garcia voluntarily resigned from his position. O’Hare said he will call an Election Commission meeting in a matter of days to talk about hiring a new elections administrator. 

“I want nothing more than quality, transparent elections in Tarrant County. Supporting the creation of an Election Integrity Task Force was all about quality, transparent elections,” he wrote.  

Tension has grown publicly between Garcia and O’Hare during the past few months. 

Last week, O’Hare said during a public meeting that he planned to call a meeting to review Garcia’s performance after the May 6 municipal election. 

“I want to say all things are on the table,” O’Hare said, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “I know there are a lot of people that want to get rid of the machines. I’m not telling you I’m a fan of the machines, want to keep the machines. I’m telling you you can cheat in paper ballots. You can in machines. You can cheat in all sorts of things.”  

During a commissioners court meeting in February, O’Hare and other Republican commissioners questioned Garcia for about 20 minutes about the proposed purchase of a $150,000 laser paper cutter for a mail-ballot sorting machine. 

The county had included that purchase in the budget approved for this year, Garcia told the commissioners. O’Hare said the piece of equipment was too expensive. 

“I think it’s a total waste,” O’Hare said before voting against the purchase. 

Garcia, like many other elections officials across the country, has faced harassment and racist death threats that stem from lies about the outcome of the 2020 election. Many administrators in Texas and across the country have resigned. Garcia, however, stood out and became known for taking a different approach to deal with some of the boisterous voter fraud activists: Instead of dismissing them or shutting them down, Garcia engaged with them and earned their trust. This tactic was praised by local and state election officials and others across the country.  

Garcia was able to take such an approach and run a successful elections department in Texas’ third-most-populous county — and the state’s last major urban area led by Republicans — because he had the support of his bosses: the Tarrant County commissioners. Elections administrators rely heavily on those elected officials, who control the budget. 

Former Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, a Republican who praised Garcia’s work, had said he had “greatest confidence” in him and denied any malfeasance in the county’s elections. Whitley did not seek reelection.  

Whitley on Monday told Votebeat that if O’Hare had questions or concerns about the county’s elections, “he could have picked up the phone to call Heider to make those questions known and not wait until a Tuesday meeting,” he said, referring to O’Hare’s public statements on elections and the commissioner court meeting at which they debated equipment costs. 

“I really hate to see [Garcia] leave. I don’t know whether it’ll be easy or not [to hire another elections administrator]. But I will tell you it wasn’t easy finding Heider Garcia. We’re gonna be hard pressed to find someone that even begins to be as capable as the one that we have,” Whitley said.   

Tarrant County Republican Party Chair Rick Barnes told Votebeat he’s had a good relationship with Garcia over the years. But new leadership, he said, will always come in and question county procedures.

“If the answer is ‘Because we’ve always done it that way,’ there’s got to be a better answer,” Barnes said. When asked if that was O’Hare’s complaint about the county’s elections, Barnes said, “I think everything is up for conversation when you get new leadership, and that’s where we are right now.”

Leading into the November general election last fall, Texas’ then–Secretary of State John Scott said Garcia was the “prototype” of an elections administrator. On Monday, Scott told Votebeat he was thankful he got to know Garcia. Scott said as a voter in Tarrant County, having him run elections in his home county was “a blessing.” 

“He’s one of those people who will always find ways to try and make things better. He was not ever unreceptive to a new way to do things, that’s why I called him a ‘prototype,’” Scott said. 

According to the results of the secretary of state’s audit of the 2020 election in four counties,  Tarrant County administered a “quality, transparent election.” When the findings were released last winter, Garcia said they showed that voters in the county can trust the process and “can be confident in the results of the elections.”

Garcia’s critics, too, have given him credit, with one election-fraud activist saying he makes other election officials in the state “look like idiots.”

“He’ll answer all of your questions,” said Aubree Campbell, a voter-fraud activist in the county who runs a group dubbed Taking Back Texas. 

In a statement, Tarrant County Democratic Party Chair Allison Campolo said the party is “alarmed at the circumstances” that led to Garcia’s resignation and condemned O’Hare and other members of the “extremist Republican Party.”

“Under Garcia’s leadership, our county demonstrated fairness and accuracy in our voting systems, as verified by numerous audits and citizen recounts,” the statement says. 

Other elections administrators in Texas, and Garcia’s colleagues, were saddened by news of his departure. 

“Heider is the gold standard. If he could do anything to help people understand elections, if he could  just let them inside to see everything that we do, he would,” said Melynn Huntley, Potter County elections administrator, whose last election will also be May 6, as she’s decided to retire after 10 years in elections. 

“The difference is I always had support and still have support of leadership. And I cannot imagine if you do not have a county judge and commissioners who trust you, and who understand, then it’s just that much more difficult,” Huntley said.

Hays County Elections Administrator Jennifer Doinoff said Garcia’s resignation “hit the elections community hard.” She added that Garcia will “depart Tarrant County with every ounce of professionalism and poise that he has exhibited throughout his time there.”

“It’s a shock,” said Chris Davis, elections administrator in Williamson County, who has known Garcia since he was appointed to his role to run elections in Tarrant in 2018. “I wish Tarrant County luck in finding somebody as professional, forward-thinking and as focused on transparency and accuracy.”

“This is a big loss for voters in Tarrant County,” Davis said, “because he was doing everything right.”

Natalia Contreras covers election administration and voting access for Votebeat in partnership with the Texas Tribune. Contact Natalia at ncontreras@votebeat.org.

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