County To Go On Offense After Abbott Signs Bills Targeting Harris County Elections

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee says a suit is ahead over elections.
Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee says a suit is ahead over elections. Screenshot
The ongoing standoff between local officials and the state over who will control Harris County election operations has reached a head after Governor Greg Abbott, as expected, signed two bills into law late last week.

Senate Bill 1750 would effectively put Harris County elections administrator Clifford Tatum out of a job and place his work back in the hands of the county clerk and tax assessor collector. Senate Bill 1933 could give the Secretary of State oversight authority of county elections if a complaint is reported – both bills were authored by Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston).

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said Tuesday the county was gearing up to act on its initial plan and file a lawsuit against the state claiming that these laws do not abide by the Texas constitution.

“These soon-to-be laws violate the state law by allowing legislators to abuse their office to try and make up for an election that they lost here in Harris County,” Menefee said. “They couldn’t win the hearts of the people out here who vote, so they’re trying to misuse the legislative process to attack the county.”

According to Menefee, these measures are a part of a set of attacks launched by Republican lawmakers, such as Bettencourt, against Harris County that started following the November 2022 election.

Bettencourt and other leaders claimed potential voter suppression occurred that swayed the election results – which were largely Democratic victories – because of a handful of Election Day polling locations experiencing technical difficulties and shortages of paper ballots.

When these bills passed in both the House and the Senate, Bettencourt thanked his fellow legislators for standing up against this "suppression" and “mismanagement of elections.”

Menefee said if the Texas Supreme Court rules that the Texas Legislature can target Harris County’s election operations, that the line would not be drawn there. County officials' choices involving finances, budget-making and who they can and cannot hire could all be under threat, he said.

“What I’m concerned about is that Republican legislators are going to be able to go out to Austin, once every two years and govern Harris County from there,” he said. “I don’t think that’s what the framers of the Texas Constitution had in mind, and I don’t think it’s right.”

He said the laws also undermine Tatum’s efforts and allot very little time for Harris County Clerk Teneshia Hudspeth and Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Ann Harris Bennett to learn the ropes ahead of the November mayoral election.

“These are three officials right here in Harris County who are being wrongfully targeted, so that Senator Bettencourt can play up some political vendetta that he has,” Menefee said. “It’s bad policy and I hope the court also finds it illegal.”

The county has had four different people running elections in the last three years; however, to curb potential problems Menefee said both Hudspeth and Bennett have already started preparing for the quick turnaround.

Menefee said when the lawsuit is filed, the county will consider asking the court for expedited consideration to see how quickly they can get a hearing, “I think this is all by design, to put us in a bind like this to where we’re having to scramble to be able to get stuff done before the election.”

According to Menefee, the case against the state will likely be filed in the next couple of weeks.
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Faith Bugenhagen is on staff as a news reporter for The Houston Press, assigned to cover the Greater-Houston area.