Legislation Uprooting Harris County Election Systems Comes Closer to Becoming Law [UPDATED]

Bills pending in the Legislature would make it possible for state officials to have direct involvement in Harris County elections.
Bills pending in the Legislature would make it possible for state officials to have direct involvement in Harris County elections. Screenshot
Update: The Texas House gave final approval to Senate Bill 1750 and Senate Bill 1933 on Tuesday.

Original Story:

The possibility that Harris County officials might lose a majority of their authority over local elections to state lawmakers is becoming increasingly likely as the Texas House passed proposed legislation transferring this power on a third reading on Monday night.

Legislators voted to approve election-related bills Senate Bill 1750 and Senate Bill 1933 – moving them closer to Governor Greg Abbott’s desk for his signature.

If made into law, Senate Bill 1750 calls for the election administrator, Clifford Tatum, to step down from his role and for his responsibilities to be returned to the county tax accessor-collector and county clerk.

Although this was the practice prior to Harris County Commissioners Court’s decision to create the position of election administrator in 2020; nine out of the 10 largest counties in Texas now use this position to run their elections.

Senate Bill 1933 would give the Secretary of State Jane Nelson – appointed by Abbott – effective control of Harris County’s elections if any operational complaints are reported.

In a tweet, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo pointed out, as has been said by others before, that if this bill passes, it would only apply to Harris County and not all the state’s 254 counties.
Mark Jones, professor of political science at Rice University, said though state officials are going after Harris County in their election efforts, the county shouldn’t be entirely surprised. Republicans did not want Clifford Tatum, who they viewed as a partisan Democrat, named to the post, but Democrats on the court prevailed. His predecessor, Isabel Longoria, was the first election administrator, whose tenure was marked by vote-counting delays and a failure to tally about 10,000 mail-in ballots.

Following these changes, the elections did not run smoothly, he said.

“Statewide Republicans are engaging in overreach, but Harris County Democrats in many ways pushed the envelope so far the other way that they almost invited Republicans to do so,” Jones said.

According to Jones, Republicans aren’t adopting similar legislation for Dallas, Bexar, Travis or any of the other larger, predominantly “blue” counties because despite not all elections running seamlessly – they did not have operational issues to the degree Harris County did.

SB 1750 and SB 1933 are two of the four main election-related bills that Hidalgo said in a press conference last week “declared war” on Harris County’s elections systems.

The two others SB 1039 and SB 1993 would enforce civil penalties for any problem detected in the process and allow for the secretary of state to order a new election if 2 percent of polling locations ran out of paper for more than an hour, respectively.

SB 1993 was another bill directly attacking Harris County as it applied to counties of 2.7 million residents or more – no other county in Texas has this large of a population, according to Hidalgo.

James Slattery, Senior Staff Attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project, said unlike SB 1750 and SB 1933, SB 1993 missed a key deadline and got stuck in their respective committees.

These bills were authored by statewide Republicans in response to concerns over potential voter suppression and the results of Harris County’s November 2022 midterm election due to polling locations that had paper ballot shortages or voting machines go off-line on Election Day.

Despite these problems, Slattery said the state is attempting to intervene through the passage of these bills is outright overreach.

Instead, it points to a year’s long battle by the state government against Harris County and other local government as the state wants to centralize their power over elections and government, he said.

“It’s all about power. State officials are worried that they are at risk of losing power both in specific areas and Texas as a whole, so they are responding by trying to grab as much power as they can,” Slattery said.

This effort can also be seen in the state’s attempt to regulate municipalities as outlined in the recently passed House Bill 2127.

Last week, this proposed legislation passed in both the House and the Senate with many city and county officials opposing it, as it would overturn local ordinances and bar cities and counties from enacting legislation beyond state law.

According to Alex Badas, political science professor at the University of Houston, local regulation on industries would be overridden – impacting the labor by changing worker safety conditions and incentives offered on the jobs.

“The idea is that people in their community know what’s best for people like them, they best know the conditions which they’re living in, so they can best address those problems,” he said. “The further removed you get from the local community, the less direct understanding of the problems you have of the problems those people are facing and the best solutions to tackle them.”

HB 2127 also limits what a local administrator can and cannot do, but does not clearly outline how much it will reduce their responsibilities yet, Badas said

In last week’s city council meeting, Mayor Sylvester Turner said, “2127 says that Austin will be your city council, essentially.”

According to Jones, before the bill is signed into law, there should be a consideration of the legislative session which would not convene again for another two years – unless a special session was called by Abbott. This would mean the state regulation would stand legal until at the earliest Spring 2025.

Similarly, Slattery is concerned about the potential aftermath if SB 1750 and SB 1933 make their way to Abbott’s desk.

Particularly with Senate Bill 1750’s call to reallocate the responsibilities of Tatum to the tax accessor-collect and county clerk, Slattery said. In the past the Texas Civil Rights Project has documented similar problems when Harris County’s elections were done by these officials.

And he believes the transfer of power would be too fast and difficult to properly restructure the system ahead of the county’s November election.

If Senate Bill 1933 is law, Slattery is worried it will create an understanding between the governor’s partners and county election officials to agree to things to avoid a state takeover of their local election.

Although Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), the author of SB 1750 and co-author of SB 1933 took to Twitter on Monday night to thank Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick calling the vote a “major victory for Harris County voters;” many Houston-based voter-rights organizations are not in support of the outcome.

The nonpartisan League of Women Voters Houston came out in opposition to the two election-related bills.

Annie Johnson Benifield, the president of the organization wrote in a statement, “We are deeply disappointed that the state once again has ignored the opportunity to improve our elections in favor of targeting elections in Harris County.”

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee already announced earlier in the legislative session that if these bills became law, the county would be pursuing legal action.

In a statement after Monday night’s vote, Menefee doubled down on this, describing the movement of these bills as a “dangerous precedent” that would result in the continued removal of more officials across the state’s most diverse counties.

“I want to be clear: this fight is not over,” he wrote. “We are evaluating our legal options and expect to share more later this week. We cannot and will not allow the state to illegally target Harris County.”
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Faith Bugenhagen is on staff as a news reporter for The Houston Press, assigned to cover the Greater-Houston area.