The elections administrator

The Chron takes a look at the elections administrator proposal that has been under study.

The idea of an elections administrator percolated during the spring as a way to cloak the function in a mantle of nonpartisanship, and incidentally, to put someone in charge of elections who’s not on the ballot himself. Opponents say that would take away the ultimate accountability tool — the voters’ power to throw the bums out.

Both sides point to the fire and the voter registration controversy as proof of their point. An appointee would not be as vulnerable as the current Republican voter registrar to attacks from Democrats, according to proponents of creating the position. Supporters of the status quo say the fine jobs Vasquez and Kaufman have done under difficult circumstances prove the existing system works.

Although the county’s management services director is scheduled to deliver a report on the pros and cons of an administrator later this month, Commissioners Court will not vote on the idea before next year, County Judge Ed Emmett said.

“Nobody can ever attach partisan motives to a nonpartisan elections administrator,” said Emmett, who believes Commissioners Court should consider an appointed elections boss. “There are no points to be made by attacking a nonpartisan elections administrator.”

As with choosing judges, I don’t believe you can ever truly remove the politics from this process. The selectors, or in the case of judges, the people who appoint the selectors, are themselves partisans, and their motives can always be questioned. We will be electing a County Clerk and a Tax Assessor this November, and whether we like the outcome of those elections or not, we will all accept that the voters have spoken. If this existed today, the appointing committee, which consists of the County Judge, the County Clerk, the Tax Assessor, and the chairs of the local Republican and Democratic Parties, would be four-fifths Republican. After the November election, it could conceivably be four-fifths Democratic. How likely is it that the other guys will be happy with the choice of that panel?

I’m not saying it can’t happen that a qualified candidate that will be accepted by all would be named. I am saying that people will be more inclined to be suspicious of a process they’re not directly involved in. Couple that with concerns about how you get rid of an administrator that isn’t getting the job done, and there are a lot of questions that need to be answered.

Having said that, of course, it’s not like Harris County would be blazing a trail on this. Plenty of other counties have elections administrators, and for the most part they seem to do all right. The hybrid setup we have here is frankly a little bizarre, and almost certainly not what you would go with if you were starting from scratch. It’s a testament to the power of the status quo that this is controversial, and I say that as an admitted skeptic. I’m willing to see what gets proposed, and we’ll go from there.

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