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Could we get an elections administrator along with a new County Clerk?

Maybe.

Diane Trautman

A week after Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman announced she would resign due to health concerns, Commissioners Court on Tuesday plans to debate whether to appoint an independent administrator to run county elections.

After Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis inquired about how to do so, the County Attorney’s office prepared a four-page memorandum last week detailing how to switch to an elections administrator, which most major counties in Texas have done.

Ellis said partisan elections administration can unfairly inject politics into what is supposed to be an apolitical process.

“In more extreme cases, the politicization of decisions may paralyze the entire process,” Ellis said in a statement.

The move would put a single office in charge of running elections and managing the voter roll, both gargantuan tasks in the state’s largest county, which has 4.7 million residents. Voter registration is currently the responsibility of the tax assessor-collector, owing to the office’s historic role collecting poll taxes. The county clerk’s office administers elections.

The nonpartisan model is successful because a centralized elections department can more efficiently update voting infrastructure, like machines and poll books, based on changes to the roll, said Hidalgo County Elections Administrator Yvonne Ramón.

“I don’t care how perfect our elections are running, how the machines and everyone is trained — if my voter registration data base is not up to date… then we’re not as good as we should be,” said Ramón, who also is president of the Texas Association of Elections Administrators.

The position of elections administrator is created by Commissioners Court.

A majority of the county election commission, comprised of the county judge, county clerk, tax assessor-collector and the chairs of the county Republican and Democratic parties, is needed to select an elections administrator.

See here for the background. Then-Judge Ed Emmett floated the idea back in May of 2010, at a time when then-Clerk Beverly Kaufman was known to be retiring and then-Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez had lost in the Republican primary. It was approved for a study that June, then fell off the radar before a brief revival in 2012. One of the concerns I had at the time was how do you remove an Elections Administrator if one proves to be not up to the task. The answer to that question, at least as articulated in that last link, appears to be “with a four-fifths majority of the election commission”, which concerns me as anything that requires a supermajority does. I’m open to the idea – you can read my thoughts about it from back then at those links – and if we go forward with it I would still want someone who fits my criteria for a County Clerk that has those same responsibilities. So for, no one other than Ellis has spoken in favor of this, but he just announced the idea over the weekend, so it’s early days. As the story notes, only Harris and Travis Counties don’t have an elections administrator, at least among the big counties, so we’d be joining the crowd if we do this. If there’s any future to this idea we’ll find out at today’s Commissioners Court meeting.

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5 Comments

  1. voter_worker says:

    From The Chronicle article: “Harris County Republican Party Chairman Paul Simpson panned the idea, since an appointed elections administrator would not be directly accountable to voters.” The administrator will be accountable to the voters in the best way possible by being required to provide a defined standard of service to those voters consistently or else be replaced with no waiting for the four-year election cycle. That, combined with the efficiencies gained by combining registration and election management makes this a proposal worth considering. In addition, candidates ideally will be drawn from professionals in the field, minimizing the learning curve required of a political candidate who may or may not have the relevant expertise and experience.

  2. brad says:

    VW,

    That is exactly what GOP Simpson wants in a GOP county clerk…”a political candidate who may not have the relevant expertise and experience.”…someone to do the bidding of the GOP repressive voting machine.

    Not sure Simpson gets it, but based on voting trends the GOP may be waiting a very long time until they get a county wide office holder.

    Amusingly lame duck Simpson was recently held accountable and booted as GOP chair in the last election.

  3. Wolfgang says:

    MAIL-VOTE ADVOCATES NOW FRENEMIES OF THE COURT

    In other election-clerk news: The Texas Supreme Court has denied the Texas Democratic Party the status of a real-party-in-interest in the direct mandamus filed by the AG in the Texas Supreme Court against the election clerks. Don’t even think about party status to the plebs (the voters in danger of catching COVID-19 at the polling places and taking it home to their co-residents). TDP’s intervention filing in No. 20-0394 is going to be treated as an amicus curiae filing instead, along with those of League of Women Voter et al.. — Personae non gratae might be the better moniker.

    This case is No. 20-0394, styled In re State of Texas (It’s all about the State, never mind the People). The interlocutory appeal pending in Houston was placed on ice–sort of — by a quickie stay order. That one is No. 20-0401 in the SCOTX.

    While the briefing of the Targeted County Elections Officials is very good (and one even got former Justice Scott Brister on board), the prospects look dim, judging by the rapidity with which the SCOTX backed up the AG almost in mental knee-jerk fashion.

    One interesting thing I learned from reading the briefs is that the Texas Election Code previously required a physician’s certification of “disability”, but this requirement was eliminated through legislative amendment years ago. So, Paxton is basically trying to read something into the statute that’s simply not there, and is trying to indenture the election clerks and get them to enforce a different version of the statute that he would prefer.

    One major argument of the respondents in the mandamus is that they have no legal duty, or even authorization, to investigate the veracity of the disability claim by the applicant and that they are complying with the law. The Lege has seen fit to leave that determination to the voter, and all that is needed to claim it is to check the appropriate box on the form (sample included in the Harris County brief). The clerks say all they do is check for completeness and then either issue a mail-in ballot or not. There is no discretion, and certainly no investigation or verification of health status (which, I might add, would also raise sensitive personal health info privacy concerns).

  4. Wolfgang says:

    AN EVOLVING LEGAL FIGHT ON MULTIPLE FRONTS …

    Federal District Judge Fred Biery has granted a preliminary injunction that allows all registered voters under 65 to apply to vote by mail during the coronavirus pandemic after finding the state’s existing election rules violate the Equal Protection Clause.

    See Trib. story by Alexa Ura here:
    https://www.texastribune.org/2020/05/19/federal-judge-says-texas-voters-can-vote-mail-during-coronavirus/

    Perhaps there is hope … or even more confusion, since the next appeal will go to the Fifth Circuit, and NOT to the Texas Supreme Court

  5. Marc says:

    How interesting that the Harris County Republican party is so anti election administrator. Even deep red Montgomery county has an independent election administrator.