GOP donor, voter fraud activist is a finalist to run elections in Tarrant County

Karen Wiseman comments on an item concerning the current electronic poll book system in place during a Tarrant County Commissioners Court meeting in Fort Worth on April 18, 2023. Credit: Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune

Tarrant County officials are considering hiring as election chief a prominent Republican donor and activist who has baselessly criticized the security of the county’s elections and appears to have no previous experience running an election.

Karen Wiseman and two other applicants — Clinton Ludwig, the county clerk’s chief deputy since 2017, and Fred Crosley, the former chief financial officer of the county’s public transit service, Trinity Metro — are finalists for the job. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram first reported the finalists’ names Tuesday.

The county received at least 20 applications for the position through its online recruitment portal after elections administrator Heider Garcia submitted his resignation in April.

Garcia, known as one of the most respected elections directors in the state, said in his letter of resignation he was leaving due to political pressure from his new boss, conservative Tarrant County Judge Tim O’Hare. Since former President Donald Trump began to make baseless allegations of fraud in connection with the outcome of the 2020 election, Tarrant County — the state’s largest swing county — has been at the center of unfounded election fraud conspiracies.

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In a text message to Votebeat, Garcia said county officials’ selection of a heavily partisan finalist for the job such as Wiseman — who, like O’Hare, has been a top Tarrant County GOP donor — did not surprise him.

Garcia said such politically motivated decisions are what drove him to resign. There’s “an expectation that the [elections administrator] will play politics,” he said and added that he hopes there are “enough reasonable members of the Elections Commission that will not vote” for a partisan candidate, given that the job is meant to be nonpartisan.

Wiseman did not respond to Votebeat’s multiple requests for comment.

The county’s election commission — which is made up of O’Hare; the chairs of both county political parties, GOP chair Rick Barnes and Democratic Party chair Allison Campolo; the county’s tax assessor; and the county clerk — is responsible for making the hire and has been reviewing resumes and conducting interviews for the role for about a week. Campolo told Votebeat the process will likely wrap up in about two weeks but declined to comment further for this story. Barnes did not respond to a request for comment.

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Based on a review of their online resumes, the finalists for the county’s top elections job appear to have no previous experience running elections, either in Texas or anywhere else. Wiseman’s resume shows she has previous experience in finance and so does Crosley’s. Ludwig appears to have experience managing administrative teams.

Wiseman’s ties to right-wing voter fraud activist groups

Wiseman has been active in the county’s elections as an election judge — people appointed by a political party to supervise a polling location — and most recently as a poll watcher, which has allowed her to quietly spend time observing activities at polling locations and be present in the room where votes are counted on election night as part of a Tarrant County right-wing group that has been searching for instances of voter fraud.

Her selection as a finalist also comes after O’Hare, who ran on a campaign prioritizing “election integrity,” said he would not rule out hiring someone who has questioned the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election results. O’Hare did not respond to questions from Votebeat about why Wiseman is being considered for the job and whether any of the finalists have the experience necessary to run elections in a county with more than 1 million registered voters.

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The group Wiseman has been associated with, Citizens for Election Integrity, has since 2021 publicly questioned the outcome of the 2020 presidential election in Tarrant County and, without evidence, accused Garcia of “rigging” elections since he took the position in 2018.

Led by Fort Worth lawyers Dan Bates and Bill Fearer, the group has spread election conspiracy theories, including false claims that the county’s voting machines are connected to the internet and that people’s votes can be manipulated. The group, along with others across the country that have spread falsehoods about election administration, opposes the use of modern technology to run elections.

A day after Garcia’s resignation in April, during a Tarrant County Commissioners Court meeting, Wiseman spoke against the county’s vote to renew a contract with the vendor of software the elections department uses to run its electronic poll books. The electronic poll books have voter registration information and help poll workers quickly check in voters at polling locations, which also prevents them from voting at more than one location. The electronic poll books are not used to count votes. The software has been certified by the Texas secretary of state, but Wiseman alleged it was “easily hackable” and had “plug-ins that can manipulate election data.” Wiseman did not offer evidence to back up her claims.

And since Garcia resigned, she said, “should the new elections administrator be allowed to review and select their own program?”

Citizens for Election Integrity has also questioned residents at addresses pulled from voter rolls. Wiseman herself sent letters to voters asking them why they voted outside of their neighborhood. Voters in Tarrant County can legally vote at any polling site. Last year, Wiseman was also involved in the group’s review of thousands of physical ballots of the 2020 primary election in search of unspecified irregularities.

Bates, the group’s head counsel, also represented Wiseman in a lawsuit she filed last summer against Tarrant County and Garcia in an effort to obtain election records related to several past elections, which were at the time not yet public by law. Wiseman sought a long list of things, including “all early voting, absentee, provisional, and day-of-election paper ballots; all cast vote record (CVR) electronic data for all voting methods (absentee, early, and day of voting); all provisional ballots/votes, regardless of whether they were included in final vote counts or not; absentee ballot envelopes; and all paper ballots that were re-created by the ballot board of election workers for any reason.”

A Tarrant County district judge in May ordered the county to produce the information for Wiseman.

Some county officials say they’ve had concerns about who will be appointed as the next elections administrator since Garcia’s resignation over political pressures.

Tarrant County Commissioner Roy Charles Brooks, a Democrat, declined to comment on Wiseman’s qualifications for the job but said he’s had concerns about the hiring process from the beginning.

“The process to replace [Garcia] is not going to give us the quality of the elections administrator that we lost,” Brooks said.

Garcia was particularly lauded by election officials across the country for his engagement with “election deniers” in his county, said Paul Gronke, Elections and Voting Information Center director and a professor of political science at Reed College.

“It is no simple task to administer elections in a large and diverse county like Tarrant, especially as we rapidly approach what is sure to be a highly competitive presidential election,” Gronke, who leads an annual survey of local election officials across the country, a source of data on the profession, said in a statement to Votebeat. “I sincerely hope that a new administrator is found who has the same level of expertise, respect, and ability to reach across political divides as Heider Garcia.”

In a tweet Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, said the fact that Wiseman got far enough in the hiring process to be a finalist is “disgusting.” Last month, Veasey and other Tarrant County Democrats asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate O’Hare and other county GOP officials’ actions and to end a “pattern of voter intimidation and harassment.” The Democrats’ request came after Garcia’s resignation and pointed to the county’s creation of an election integrity “task force” supported by O’Hare.

“They getting too comfortable in Tarrant County govt,” Veasey wrote in his tweet.

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

This coverage is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan news organization covering local election administration and voting access, and appeared in The Texas Tribune.