Harris County Sues To Block Law That Would Oust Current Elections Administrator

Harris County files a lawsuit to fight law that would do away with the elections administrator's office.
Harris County files a lawsuit to fight law that would do away with the elections administrator's office. Screenshot
Harris County filed suit Thursday morning challenging a law that would abolish the county election administrator’s office after ongoing standoffs between local and state officials over who will control election operations.

Senate Bill 1750 removes current election administrator Clifford Tatum from his position and transfers his work to the county clerk and tax assessor collector. It was signed into law by Governor Greg Abbott last month, to come into effect on September 1.

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said the county filed the lawsuit because the state’s efforts to solely target Harris County are unconstitutional.  Over half of Texas counties – including nine out of the 10 largest – use election administrators, he said at a joint press conference with Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia Thursday morning.

“Our legislature here in the state of Texas should be focused on passing laws that make life better for all of Texas, not targeting one county because its leaders look differently and think differently from the folks in Austin,” Menefee said.

Menefee said the lawsuit was bigger than Senate Bill 1750, and was an effort to extend protection against state authority overtaking the county as a whole.

He cited the Death Star bill, which preempts local ordinances, measures that make it easier to remove judges and district attorneys from office, and state officials meddling in the county budget as all threats to Harris County's local autonomy.

Garcia said it was unfortunate that Abbott saw it fit to make it harder for people to vote and threaten residents’ ability to participate in county elections, “This bill (SB1750) is anti-democracy, it is anti-government, it is anti-voter and we don’t need it,” he said.

According to Menefee, this is not the first time the Harris County elections administrator's office has come into question, as he said Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), who authored Senate Bill 1750, called for the office to be abolished in 2020.

In a tweet, Bettencourt responded to what he referred to as the county's frivolous lawsuit and claimed Senate Bill 1750 was about performance, not politics.
At that time, Isabel Longoria was the elections administrator. However, she resigned as there were problems with damaged ballots that delayed results and an issue that left thousands of ballots out of the unofficial primary results.

Tatum's ability to operate elections has also come into question after about 20 of the 782 polling locations ran out of ballot paper on Election Day.

Menefee said county officials will go to court and ask the judge to temporarily block the bill from going into effect in September. He expects to get a hearing date on the issue within the next month.

He said other laws they may challenge will be evaluated after they complete this lawsuit. This includes Senate Bill 1933, signed alongside SB 1750, another election-related measure that would increase the oversight ability of the state and allow for the removal of the Harris County clerk and Harris County Tax assessor collector.
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Faith Bugenhagen is on staff as a news reporter for The Houston Press, assigned to cover the Greater-Houston area.