On Sept. 1, the Harris County's Election Administrator's Office Won't Be in Charge of Elections Anymore [UPDATED]

Tuesday's court ruling places election operation responsibilities in the hands of elected county officials for now.
Tuesday's court ruling places election operation responsibilities in the hands of elected county officials for now. Screenshot
The Texas Supreme Court has ruled against Harris County’s request for an emergency order to block a law that would remove election operations from the Harris County Election Administrator's Office and effectively abolish Harris County Elections Administrator Clifford Tatum 's job.

A Travis County District court decision to grant an injunction last week would have temporarily kept Senate Bill 1750 from becoming law on September 1. However, the Texas Attorney General’s Office appealed that decision to the state Supreme Court.

Tuesday’s court ruling returns the election oversight to Harris County Clerk Teneshia Hudspeth and Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Ann Harris Bennett. This puts the debate over who would run the upcoming November election to rest for now.

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee initially filed the lawsuit against the state, claiming that the law violated the Texas Constitution as it targeted only Harris County by citing its population size. Menefee argued that nearly half of Texas counties use an election administrator to run elections, including nine out of the 10 largest counties.

Menefee also expressed his concern about the turnaround time of the law going into effect just weeks before the next election. Menefee said despite preparing Hudspeth and Harris to run the election; it was still a short period to shift the county’s election operations system – which could risk issues arising.

Harris County officials hope to run the upcoming election without errors, as ballot paper shortages and technological issues at least 20 polling locations occurred during the November 2022 election.

These problems led Republican lawmakers to pass legislation such as Senate Bill 1750, which limits the county’s autonomy in local elections. Harris County Republican candidates who lost their respective races also used the "botched election" as a reason to file 21 election contest lawsuits.

The first, filed by Republican party judicial candidate Erin Lunceford challenging her loss against 189th District Judge Tamika Craft, wrapped up trial earlier this month.

Although the court blocked the county's emergency order, litigation over Senate Bill 1750 is not over  Oral arguments in the state's appeal of the initial trial court's ruling are scheduled for November 28.

County officials will discuss how they plan to proceed at next week's Commissioners Court meeting, according to a statement from Menefee’s Office.

Menefee’s statement on Tuesday’s ruling:

“I am disappointed that the Texas Supreme Court is quietly allowing the legislature to illegally target Harris County, instead of considering the arguments and timely deciding whether Senate Bill 1750 violates the constitution. We first learned of today’s decision from media, instead of from the court itself,” said Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee. “From the start, Republican legislators pushed this law abolishing the Harris County Elections Administrator’s Office to undermine local elections and score political points on the backs of the good people who run them. By setting the law to go into effect September 1, and not passing a single law to assist in the transition or provide additional funding, Republican legislators are making the job of running this November’s election much more difficult. It was on the Texas Supreme Court to rein in these bad-faith lawmakers. The court failed Harris County residents.”

“At the next Commissioners Court meeting on August 29, I will discuss the ruling and its implications with Commissioners Court members so that they can decide how best to proceed," added County Attorney Menefee.

Update 4:50 p.m.

Harris County Clerk Teneshia Hudspeth’s statement on Texas Supreme Court’s decision:

“As an individual, I have mixed feelings about enacted laws that present unwarranted complications to election administrators and voters alike. Still, whether I agree with a law or not, I have taken an Oath to abide by law as an elected official.

My duty as Chief Election Official is to conduct elections with a non-partisan spirit, provide ALL voters with the information, materials, and assistance needed to vote, and work to strengthen voters’ confidence in our election process. My priority is to strategically assess the current election administrative practices, evaluate the performance of the new election equipment, get a clear understanding of what ails the voting and election infrastructure, address it, and move us forward to a better place.

As an experienced former election official familiar with the demanding work of running elections, I am confident Harris County can administer well-organized, transparent, fair elections. There is no magic formula to remedy what has gone awry in the last three years since the conduct of elections was removed from the County Clerk’s Office. There is only plenty of work ahead for all of us, and a great commitment on my part to enable all eligible voters the opportunity to exercise their right to vote.”
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Faith Bugenhagen is on staff as a news reporter for The Houston Press, assigned to cover the Greater-Houston area.