A few minutes with Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, episode 15

In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth leaders, Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley answered questions after the Secretary of State’s recent announcement that it had begun a “full forensic audit” of the 2020 general election in Tarrant, Dallas, Collin and Harris counties. There has been no widespread evidence of voter fraud during that election. Joe Biden won Tarrant County with 49.3% of the vote to Donald Trump’s 49%.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio attached to this article.

Jessica Priest: Do you think that an audit of the November 2020 election in Tarrant County is necessary?

Glen Whitley: Well, I guess, Jessica, here’s what I would say – it is necessary for the citizens to have confidence in the election process. And whatever it takes to instill that confidence is something that as an elected official, as someone who is responsible for overseeing the elections, we should make every effort necessary to make sure that that confidence is there, and that folks are questioning the process that this country uses to transfer from one administration to another.

Priest: Did Tarrant County find any evidence of fraud or illegal voting during the November 2020 election? Do you have confidence in the outcome?

Whitley: I have the utmost confidence and let me just kind of tell you why I believe that, and I’ve said this to other folks. Everybody thinks the county runs the election. We oversee the election. The election, the early voting, the Election Day, the counts of the absentee ballots, the whole process is actually conducted by the parties. They provide lists of judges and poll workers.

And while we pay them a minor amount, they run those elections and they take their responsibility very, very seriously. And I saw that firsthand in the issue that we had with the absentee ballots and the fact that we had to duplicate, or make over some of those ballots, about 20,000 of them. When we’re looking at a general election, there’s never an instance where people of only one party are doing the work, whether that work be checking someone in, giving them a ballot, counting the ballots. Whatever it is, there are always two people from different parties. And so I believe that we do a recount of the ballots, it may change a little bit, but there’s not going to be a material change in that. I feel extremely confident in the integrity of our ballots.

Priest: Only a handful of counties were chosen or named by the Secretary of State’s Office for this, to undergo this audit. Why do you think Tarrant County was one of the counties chosen?

Whitley: I mean these are the largest counties. Tarrant County is certainly a Republican county. Collin County is certainly a Republican county. Harris, Dallas are certainly Democratic counties. 

Priest: So you would describe Tarrant County as a Republican county, even though Joe Biden won the county?

Whitley: Oh yeah, look at the down ballot races where folks don’t know who they’re voting for. Look at the judges’ races. Those judges were elected 53-54% Republican to 46-47% for the Democrats. Every countywide election with the exception of Biden and Trump went for a Republican. We did the same thing when it was Cruz, when Beto beat Cruz. Every other countywide office was won by the Republicans by at least 6 or 7 percentage points.

Priest: What does this audit entail?

Whitley: Well, as I understand, we don’t know exactly what we’re going to have to do into the future. What it entailed as far as what has occurred in the past is the same thing that occurs after every election before the election. The machines are tested. There’s a cybersecurity test that is done by an independent, third-party group, and we ranked one of the highest in the state out of the 254 counties. Within 72 hours after the election, there are tests that are run on various precincts. We were perfect in the results of those tests, so at this point in time, we don’t know what else the Secretary of State would plan to do, but we stand ready and we’ve told them that we are ready to help and to assist them in any way we can, so that people will feel comfortable and  again confident in the integrity of the vote.

Priest: What is the county doing to secure this November election? Is it doing anything additional?

Whitley: No, not at all.  I will say this in 2019, we bought new equipment, and we were very deliberate about the fact that we wanted a paper ballot for all facets of the voting. Up until that point in time, we were using a system that if you voted early, you went down and you selected who you wanted to vote for, you got to the end of the ballot, it showed you, who you were voting for, you push the button and it electronically conveyed your ballot over to the counting machine. There was not a paper trail. We said that we felt it was important to have a paper trail for all facets of the election process. 

And so when we bought the equipment in 2019, we had just gotten a new election administrator. We told him we wanted a paper ballot. He walked us through that process. And we knew we wanted it before 2019 because we knew that the November 2019 election would be a smaller number of people voting and so it wouldn’t be baptism by fire in the 2020 primary and general election. We did that. We went through that process. We changed the vote centers. 

Again, we did that in 2019 because we thought it would give people more options and abilities to make voting easier. And we did that and we still believe that that was the right decision. And now, at least as people are wanting to have more confidence in the vote, we’ve got a paper trail for every vote that was cast in the 2020 election.

Priest: Tell me about the election administrator Heider Garcia. When was he hired and where did he previously work?

Whitley: He was hired in 2019. It would have been in the spring of 2019. We actually hired someone (before Garica) and within about three weeks decided this was not the right person for us. And when we talk about hiring, it’s important to understand the process that you go through to hire an election administrator. 

There is what is called an election commission. And that commission is made up of the two party chairs, the Democratic chair and the Republican chair. It’s made up of the county judge – I preside over the commission – the tax assessor collector and the county clerk. Those are the five people who make up the Election Commission. They interview candidates for that election administrator, and then they must make a recommendation to the County Commissioners Court. And then the commissioners’ court has the ability to vote yes or no on that. And so, after the first one didn’t work out, we went through the process.

Heider Garcia was the unanimous selection and recommendation to the commissioners’ court, and the commissioners’ court voted unanimously to take that recommendation and hire Heider. Previous to that, Heider had worked for a company, I believe it was Smartmatic. And, as an employee of that, he had been involved in not only the elections in Venezuela, but also the elections in the Philippines. And both of those elections, there was a lot of controversy surrounding all of that. But Heider came through those unscathed. 

There were certainly a lot of people who were questioning the process. I know in Venezuela there’s this big YouTube or thing about the chairman of the elections process saying it was all rigged and wanted to go out and see everything and the next week he went out and saw everything and said, “We’re through. Investigation’s over. I’m very comfortable with the way the process was handled.”

And, you know, again, I feel very comfortable with Heider and his choice. I still feel comfortable with that. He is very open to giving tours, working with people, answering any questions they might have. And any time I’ve had somebody who called me, I would express just what I have expressed to you. I would encourage them to talk with Heider, and once they’ve talked with Heider and they’ve gone out and visited with him and let him show them the process, I’ve not had anybody come back after that and say, “We still believe he was a problem or he is a problem.”

But again, he is overseeing the elections that are being run by the parties. And when those absentee ballots come back in, they are put in the possession of the what is called in “the ballot board; and the ballot board, which is made up of members of both parties and really all parties because we have some green and Libertarian folks on there are two, there are the ones that have complete control over those ballots from the time they come in til the time they are counted and put up  for storage. We are required to hold the balance and storage at least until September of 2022. I think we actually hold it for about three years before we destroy the ballots.

Priest: Why did it not work out with the other election administrator?

Whitley: Because he came in and he said, “Here’s the way it is, and I know better than any of y’all,” and he successfully made everybody mad in the short period of about three or four weeks.

Priest: What did he say that he knew better?

Whitley: He knew better where to put them, he knew better how to work them, he knew better procedures. It was a complete disaster. … The Election Commission can’t fire someone, the commissioners’ court is the only one that can terminate. And the Commissioners Court terminated unanimously as well  based upon the recommendation of the election commission.

Priest: We had requested this interview to be with Mr. Garcia, and we were told that you were handling all media requests about elections. Was Garcia unavailable or is the county trying to insulate him from threats? We’ve heard of election administrators across the country being threatened in the past year.

Whitley: Yeah, we’re trying to make sure that the message is consistent, and that we’re also trying to make sure that he is isolated from some of that. I mean, I’ll be honest with you, there have been times when we’ve had the same situation with our public health director. Now for the most part, I am a part of that whole process. … But this has become such a lightning rod deal, we wanted to just try to focus on the message that was going out.

Priest: Early voting starts on Oct. 18 for the Nov. 2 election. I previously spoke with the county administrator about some of the county’s propositions that will be on the ballot. He wasn’t able to advocate one way or the other. Do you want to say anything about those propositions? Are you able to advocate for their passage?

Whitley: Oh yeah, I’m able to advocate and have no problems doing so. I will say that I’ll educate, but I’m obviously very supportive of that. The county employees are not really supposed to be out there doing that, but I’m an elected official, and people ask me these questions and what I say to them is we did this back in 2006.

That was the first time we had a transportation bond issue. And what we promised is that we would leverage the dollars that we were raising for this. And I think when it’s all said and done, if you looked at that particular bond issue, which we’re still spending a little bit of that money, in most instances, we were probably able to leverage it even greater than one to one because we did some with the federal government, some with the state and those leverages may have been as much as six, seven, or eight times for every dollar we put up that may have put up that much. We asked for calls for projects. We got 196 different project requests for over $730 million. We put together a 16-member committee that ranked those with the help of Freese and Nichols. And then we’ve got another $125 million that we’ve set aside to really look at working with the feds in the state on connectivity and helping to keep the congestion index down and then also anticipating the (growth).

We’ll probably be spending this money for 10 to 15 years. And then we also gave discretional money to court members. In this particular one, we’re talking about $15 million each. We may have looked at $15 million or $10 million each in the last one. And that allows each one of the commissioners and then the county judge to look at specific areas that may have not been a need in the initial stages or may have been in the unincorporated area, and allows us to do work in those particular areas. The DA’s building, again, over the last 10 years we’ve grown by about 300,000, but if you look at the last 30 years, we’ve grown by about a million, we’ve almost doubled in size and in that timeframe, we’ve seen a significant increase in the number of cases. The department has grown. Security is much more needed. I don’t know that it’s any more important, but we’re just in a different environment than we were 25-30 years ago, and so we’re going to get not only additional security, but additional space. She is spread out over two or three floors now and this will allow us to bring everybody back together. And we feel like it will be something that will be of great benefit to the whole judicial process.

Priest: Great. Well, is there anything that I didn’t ask you that you want people to know about elections in general and the one coming up?

Whitley: Just that we take the integrity of the election (seriously). That is always our top priority and will always be our top priority. And I believe that the people we have working our elections feel exactly that same way. They represent dedicated party workers, for all the parties, and they come together and work with one another to make sure that those elections are fair and you can have a great deal of confidence in them. If you ask most people they would tell you that the Democrats and Republicans can’t get together on anything. Well, when it comes to elections, they work together to make sure the integrity of that election is not questioned.

Jessica Priest is an investigative journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at jessica.priest@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter.  At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Jessica Priest

Jessica Priest is Fort Worth Report's government and accountability reporter. She was previously on USA TODAY's regional investigative team. After Jessica reported that a Midland County prosecutor worked...

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