Republicans in Texas County, in Unusual Move, Upend Primary System
The Republican Party in the second-largest county in the Texas Panhandle is planning to conduct its own election during the state primary in March, breaking away from a nonpartisan county election board in a highly unusual move.
The G.O.P. in Potter County, which includes Amarillo, plans to use ballots that will be marked and counted by hand, rather than employ the electronic systems that the county has relied on for decades. Election experts said the changes would confuse voters and create more potential for fraud.
Under Texas law, county parties are allowed to run their own primary elections, but the vast majority have contracted with local boards of election for decades. The decision, which was reported by Votebeat, an election news website, comes as Republicans nationally have continued to push baseless claims of fraud in the 2020 election and sow doubts about the reliability of election machinery.
Daniel L. Rogers, the chairman of the Potter County Republicans, said that he made the decision this week because “a lot of voters have concerns” with the electronic counters and “don’t feel comfortable with them.” He did not cite evidence of any problems arising under the current system, and studies have shown that hand counting leads to more inaccuracies. He argued that paper ballots would be more secure.
“The parties have become lazy and complacent, but the primaries are actually the party’s responsibility,” said Mr. Rogers, a real estate broker whose office was decorated with red Make America Great Again hats when a New York Times reporter interviewed him last year. “The counties are spending millions of dollars on electronic systems, but this way it’s a true secret ballot.”
He said that “the voters are smarter than our elected officials, than administrators — they don’t trust the voters. I do.”
Mark P. Jones, a professor of political science at Rice University in Houston, said the move “removes the Republican Party one more step away from the standard electoral procedure.”
He added: “The integrity of our electoral system depends on institutionalizing and professionalizing election boards. There will be more doubts about the overall outcome, or it will lead to more slip-ups and more potential flaws and problems than if the professionals ran it.”
Potter County has about 57,000 registered voters, and they are overwhelmingly Republican: Roughly 70 percent cast their ballots for Donald J. Trump in 2020.
Mr. Rogers, when asked if the election results nationally were valid, responded, “I don’t have any idea and that’s the problem — I don’t know if it was accurate or not.”
Under state law, the county elections board will still be responsible for absentee and early voting, which a majority of voters in Texas use to cast their ballots. But the two systems, experts said, could complicate the process and make it easier for voters to cast ballots twice.
“It opens the door wide to fraud,” Dr. Jones said. “It doesn’t close the door to fraud.”
The legal office of the Texas secretary of state, who oversees elections in the state and who was appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, raised several concerns about the move.
“Any time that a party conducts their own election rather than contracting with a county, it is more confusing to voters,” said Sam Taylor, the assistant secretary of state for communications. Still, he added that “ultimately it’s their decision to go at it alone.”
One risk, Mr. Taylor said, is that candidates in contested races could file election challenges to prompt a court to order a new primary election. “It’s not unprecedented,” he said. “But county parties usually do not invite that opportunity upon themselves.”
“They have every legal right to do so,” he added. “We can’t really intervene.”
Melynn Huntley, the Potter County elections administrator, said that she had been taken aback by Mr. Rogers’s decision and that she was most worried about the potential to make it easier to vote twice.
“The biggest worry I have is that those two systems will not talk with each other,” Ms. Huntley said. “His desire is to eliminate fraud, but there is a vulnerability in the plan. I am concerned whether this can function with high integrity.”
Ms. Huntley, who has served as elections administrator for eight years, said that when she took on the job, she pledged not to vote in either party’s primary so that she could maintain her role as a nonpartisan overseer.
“I am truly trying to figure out how this is going to work,” she said.