AUSTIN, Texas — The state’s largest county is trying to figure out how to adjust its elections process months before this November’s election. The Texas Supreme Court recently denied the county’s request to delay a new state law that eliminates the elections chief.
A new law, SB 1750, says no county with more than 3.5 million people can have an elections administrator, which is an appointed position. The only county that will be affected is Harris. Other large counties like Bexar and Dallas will still be allowed to appoint elections administrators.
“Our state constitution bans local laws because legislators are supposed to be passing laws that benefit the entire state,” said Christian Menefee, the Harris County attorney, who described the law as unconstitutional.
Harris County tried to challenge the bill in court so it could run the election in November with an elections administrator. But the Supreme Court of Texas said the law can take effect in September. Now, the election will be run by the county’s clerk, Teneshia Hudspeth and tax assessor-collector, Ann Harris Bennett. Both are elected Democrats.
“These are veterans of county government and who I’m confident will do a fantastic job,” Menefee said. “They understand the seriousness of this.”
Cindy Siegal, with the Harris County Republican Party, says if they don’t do a good job, the voters can decide whether or not to reelect them.
“We’re asking for it to be put back into the hands of two Democrat, African American women that were originally elected, both of them were elected, to do those jobs,” she said. “[There] has been a massive mismanagement — gross mismanagement — of how our elections are run in Harris County, and it’s time to put it back in the hands of elected officials, because if they do the same thing, the voters then will have the opportunity to vote them out.”
Republicans like the bill’s author, Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, say local officials in Harris County stumbled during recent elections. They point to last year’s March primary, when Harris County was the only one in Texas that took more than 24 hours to fully report results and discovered an additional 10,000 mail-in ballots a week later. In November’s election, there were ballot shortages and delayed openings at polling places.
“That’s a really bad thing to happen in the 21st century. It has to stop,” said Sen. Bettencourt. “We can’t have that type of election fiasco in the nation’s third largest county and the largest county in Texas.”
Katya Ehresman, the voting rights program manager with Common Cause Texas, says the state could have provided Harris County with more funding and resources to run elections instead of abolishing its elections administrator.
“It very much is setting up Harris County for failure in creating this punitive solution as opposed to productive investment in the county to prevent mistakes,” she said.
Ehresman believes the law is an overreach.
“What we have been saying from the beginning, when we started getting hearings on this bill, is that this is textbook elections aversion,” Ehresman said. “It’s a trend that we’re seeing across the country, and that’s getting national news in the capacity of undermining the ability for local officials to run their own election and taking the partisan influence out of it. And so it’s concerning and disappointing that the Supreme Court of Texas has decided to greenlight this overreach by the legislature.”
Sen. Bettencourt believes the change in oversight will help Harris County run a smoother election.
“It was only just a couple years ago that the Commissioners Court made the wrong decision to take it away from the elected officials and give it to an appointed administrator. About half of the counties have elected officials, and half have administrators. But if one doesn’t work out, like the election administrator bombed in Harris County — two of them in one year — it’s time for a change,” Sen. Bettencourt said. “You’ve got to have people that know how to run elections. And fortunately, we’ve got a county clerk that has good election administration experience, and a tax assessor that used to be the voter registrar. And believe me, both of them have more experience than the person they’re replacing.”
Sen. Bettencourt says this is about performance, not politics.
Another bill, SB 1933, which also goes into effect Sept. 1, would allow the secretary of state to have oversight of the Harris County election if anything goes wrong. The secretary of state is appointed by the governor.
“If there are certain complaints that are filed, they can take action,” Sen. Bettencourt said. “So we’re making a major structural change, but I think an important one, because we’re giving the job back to elected officials that used to do the job correctly, and then we’re having oversight in case there’s an issue. So we basically have the literal ‘belt and suspenders’ approach.”
Not everyone sees SB 1933 as a positive, though.
“[It] actually targets those two women, our county clerk and our tax assessor, allowing for the state of Texas to come in to micromanage their elections or...to remove them from office if the state takes issue with how elections are run,” said Menefee. “So the stakes are incredibly high now.”
The Supreme Court of Texas will hear oral arguments in this case in late November, a few weeks after this year’s constitutional amendment election.
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