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Tarrant County faces big challenge in replacing elections chief amid contentious atmosphere

After Heider Garcia departs, “that skill set is gonna be very hard to replace,” election expert says.

A man in a suit holds his chin
Tarrant County Judge Tim O’Hare listens to comments during a Commissioners Court meeting in Fort Worth on April 18, 2023. (Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune)

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Tim O’Hare, Tarrant County’s top government official, this week laid out his preferred qualifications for the next person to lead the county’s elections department: someone trustworthy to people of all political stripes “whose goal is to remain behind the scenes” while delivering timely results.  

O’Hare also wouldn’t rule out hiring someone who questions the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election results, calling it “not an automatic disqualifier.” 

Replacing Tarrant’s outgoing elections director, Heider Garcia, will be a daunting task for officials in the state’s largest and most important swing county as election officials resign around the state, pressured by activists openly questioning the accuracy of elections. 

While other elections offices withdrew from public scrutiny to avoid harassment and criticism, Garcia took the opposite approach. Instead of dismissing them outright, Garcia would do as much as he could to answer any question or suspicion that anyone had about elections and the process. This approach was praised by election officials across the state and nationwide. Members of the public also praised him for this strategy. 

“He’d done a superb job. All I know is that we had somebody who was great and now we don’t,” said Jackee Cox, a resident of Fort Worth who on Tuesday walked into the meeting holding a sign that read “GRIEVE OUR LOSS OF HEIDER GARCIA.”  

Tarrant may not have many candidates of any variety to choose from, election administration experts told Votebeat. It will be difficult, they said, for Tarrant County officials to find a new elections administrator given the acrimonious political climate and Garcia’s resignation, which his letter indicated was spurred by political pressure from O’Hare.

“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 wrote in his resignation letter.

Garcia did not attend the meeting Tuesday and declined to comment for this story.

The day after Garcia notified the county of his intention to resign, O’Hare denied responsibility during a county commissioners court meeting and said “I did not ask Heider to resign. I did not put pressure on Heider to resign. I did not threaten to fire Heider. I did not threaten to bring him before the election commission for review to determine if he would keep his employment. He chose to resign on his own.”

O’Hare has, in recent days, publicly voiced various complaints about Garcia. O’Hare, for example, said it was inappropriate for Garcia to share information with reporters; disagreed with a request for a costly election equipment upgrade; said the March 2022 election results were delayed; and said that Garcia had angered certain local activists.

The public accusations and acrimony will draw out the timeline for recruitment, experts say, as potential applicants will know that they’ll be stepping into a position in which “there will be an expectation that the election official will not have the ability to do their best job,” said Tammy Patrick, chief executive officer for programs at the National Association of Election Administrators, also known as the Election Center. 

O’Hare has made other public statements that Patrick says could dissuade qualified applicants. For example, last week O’Hare said he’d want an elections administrator who “runs elections, not someone that submits themselves for media interviews over and over and over,” according to Fort Worth Report.

This is at odds with the election administration field, Patrick said. In the last decade, elections administrators have been working and training to build relationships with the press in an effort to become more transparent and to combat misinformation.

“If [O’Hare believes] that election officials should just be quiet and do their job and not speak out on behalf of their voters, then that’s going to be very challenging to find an election official that believes that is the role,” Patrick said.

O’Hare campaigned on election integrity

O’Hare’s approach to both Garcia and election policy is starkly different from that of his Republican predecessor, a fact O’Hare highlighted on the campaign trail. Then, he claimed “mail ballot harvesting” and “Democrats cheating” contributed to former President Donald Trump losing the 2020 election in Tarrant County. 

Soon after he took office, O’Hare debuted a county election integrity task force, despite the lack of evidence of widespread voter fraud, to be run by Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn. Last week, O’Hare told Cleta Mitchell — a right-wing lawyer who advised Trump on his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election — that at least one other county in Texas is planning to replicate the task force idea. 

O’Hare told Mitchell that anyone can call the task force hotline with an elections-related complaint, and a sheriff’s deputy “will be there lickity split.”

“Lots of phone calls come in that end up being nothing, but we want people to know — who are considering gaming the system, who are considering doing something illegal — we want them to know we are coming after them here in Tarrant County,” O’Hare said. 

Earlier this month, during an event in North Texas hosted by the far-right group True Texas Project, O’Hare said he supported ending countywide voting, a popular program that allows voters to cast a ballot anywhere in the county instead of in only their local precinct. About 90 counties in Texas, mostly Republican, are currently using this system. 

Voter fraud activists in Tarrant and elsewhere in the state have spread baseless claims that countywide polling sites allow people to vote in more than one place at the same time, thus committing fraud. Sen. Bob Hall, R-Rockwall, has proposed legislation that would ban counties from the program.

“I want to say all things are on the table,” O’Hare said. “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,” O’Hare said, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

About 40 people attended a Tarrant County Election Commission meeting where county officials voted to accept the resignation of Heider Garcia. (Jessica Huseman/Votebeat)

“They all talk”

The circumstances around Garcia’s resignation echo a number of other resignations from election officials across the state. 

In August, Central Texas’ Gillespie County saw its entire elections department resign. Elections Administrator Anissa Herrera submitted her resignation after she endured racism, harassment and threats from voter fraud activists there. The county’s only two other election employees resigned around the same time. County officials have yet to hire a new elections administrator. 

Hood County, southwest of Fort Worth, replaced its elections director after a few months but was forced to select from a pool of candidates without the same level of experience that the previous elections director, Michele Carew, brought to the job. Carew resigned in October 2021 after a monthslong campaign by voter fraud activists to oust her. 

“All the [election administrators] in Texas know each other, too. So they all talk,” said Adrienne Martin, the Hood County Democratic Party chair, who was a member of the election commission in the county tasked with finding a new elections administrator. “And of course, nobody wants to come work at the place that was a toxic work environment for her. Especially after all of what she went through.”

A skillset that won’t be easy to replace

Garcia has faced racism, harassment and death threats stemming from baseless claims of voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election. His approach to the rancor of the boisterous voter fraud activists was remarkably different from others, experts told Votebeat. Other election administrators lauded Garcia’s ability to engage with such activists

“To have an election official, and a person of color, in a county that has a reputation of leaning conservative, in a very complicated competitive political state, who’s able to navigate that environment, I want to say that skill set is gonna be very hard to replace, and that to me is a really big loss,” said Paul Gronke, Elections and Voting Information Center director and a professor of political science at Reed College. Gronke and Paul Manson, the research director of the Elections and Voting Information Center, lead an annual survey of local election officials across the country, an important source of data on the profession. 

Even some of Garcia’s loudest critics say his background as a computer engineer and knowledge of voting systems made him stand out among other election officials.

“It is a loss because he’s built these [voting] systems and he knows more about these computerized voting systems than most people on this planet,” Aubree Campbell, a voter fraud activist in Tarrant County who leads a group called Taking Back Texas, said during a county commissioners court meeting in reaction to Garcia’s resignation. Campbell is among the activists that first antagonized Garcia before he earned their trust. “So he is valuable to keep here.”

Garcia’s last day on the job will be June 23. His deputy, Troy Havard, will act as interim elections administrator until the position is filled. Once the position has been posted, the election commission — which is made up of the county judge, the chairs of both political parties, the county’s tax assessor and the county clerk — will review resumes, conduct interviews and try to expedite the process of appointing a next elections director.

But even if the county is able to find someone to fill Garcia’s position, it could take that person some time to run a smooth operation, experts say. 

“We know from our conversations with local election officials that the chief elections official just knows the bumps and the landmines and the surprises out there when it comes to running these elections,” Mason said. “And you don’t learn that for four years into the job because you sort of have to go through a full presidential cycle to really know what’s going on in your community.” 

Fort Worth resident Jackee Cox attended the Tarrant County Election Commission meeting on April 25, to support Heider Garcia who submitted his resignation amid what he cited as differences with newly elected County Judge Tim O’Hare. (Natalia Contreras/Votebeat)

“Absolute ethical integrity”

Tuesday’s meeting of the Tarrant County Election Commission was the first time the body had convened in two years. The commission is tasked with the appointment, acceptance of resignation or recommendation for termination of a county elections administrator. 

In Tarrant County, its members include O’Hare, Democratic Party Chair Allison Campolo, Republican Party Chair Rick Barnes, Tax Assessor-Collector Wendy Burgess and County Clerk Mary Louise Nicholson. Except for Campolo, all are Republicans.

The commission’s infrequent meetings typically draw little attention and see low attendance by the public, but this week’s meeting drew a crowd of nearly 40 people. While a handful said they were happy to see Garcia go, most who showed up spoke and clapped in support of him. 

Robert Buker and Laura Oakley were among those pleased by Garcia’s resignation and told Votebeat it was a step toward restoring people’s confidence in elections. 

Buker said Garcia “did his best” but not enough to get rid of “the voting machines, the e-poll books. We need to go back to paper ballots. There are just too many issues,” he said. He and Oakley would like to see an elections administrator who will hear their concerns and take action. 

And if the next elections administrator doesn’t, Oakley said she and others won’t stop pressing until it gets done because “it’s just too important.”

Tarrant County Libertarian Party Chair Donavan Pantke was among Garcia’s most vocal supporters there. During the public comment period, he told election commission members that Garcia had “absolute ethical integrity.” 

“It saddens me to see that such a man in the current environment is now being pushed out,” Pantke said. “I would like to see this commission step up and hire an individual that has an equally impeccable character and a love and a passion for conducting elections in a fair and nonpartisan manner.” 

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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