Harris County became the latest in Texas to adopt an independent administrator model to run elections when the Democratic majority on Commissioners Court voted Tuesday to create the new department.
Court members voted 3-2 along party lines to create an election administrator’s office, which will assume the voter registration duties of the tax assessor-collector and the election management role of the county clerk.
Tax Assessor-Collector Ann Harris Bennett and former Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman, who are both Democrats, opposed the move. Bennett in a letter to court members said her office successfully was registering voters, and she expressed doubt an independent administrator would be an improvement.
“Checks and balances will be lost with elections and voter registration managed by one office only,” Bennett wrote. “In counties with election administrators, the lack of accountability between voter registrars and election clerks has caused the type of problem that erodes public trust.”
Trautman, who was elected in 2018 but resigned in May because of health issues, said such a move should come only after a robust community engagement process next year.
The court plans to hire an elections administrator as soon as next month, though the office would not begin official operations until Nov. 18. County Clerk Chris Hollins, who supports the adoption of the elections administrator model, will remain in charge of the Nov. 3 general election.
In its vote Tuesday, the court ordered a study of the budget, facilities, equipment, and personnel needed for the elections administrator office, and to seek input from the public. The court will need to vote to approve that final report, which is due within 30 days, before hiring an administrator.
This had been discussed before by Commissioners Court, in May shortly after Trautman’s resignation. I went through the previous history of this idea – it came up in 2010 and 2012 as well, with then-Judge Ed Emmett being its proponent. Commissioner Ellis was the driving force this time, and I’ll quote from the email he sent out Tuesday night that explains his reasoning:
Preserving our democratic process must be a priority for Harris County. I’m proud that Harris County Commissioners Court has approved moving our electoral process away from a system that is based on the racist disenfranchisement of communities of color and embraced a contemporary system that reflects our county’s values and diversity.
By creating the Harris County Elections Administrator office, the county is appropriately elevating the importance of elections and demonstrating the vital need to have those elections expertly overseen. Splitting our county’s election duties between two offices – the County Clerk and the Tax Assessor-Collector – as we have previously done, eliminates the ability to streamline the electoral process and does not allow for our elections to be a year-round priority.
“Given how critical voter registration and the administrations of our elections are to our democracy, we need an independent, non-partisan office that can focus entirely on these duties and guarantee our residents equal access to the ballot box,” said Commissioner Ellis.
“Generations of people have fought for the right to vote and our community entrusts us to carry out elections that uphold these values. In the midst of this national reckoning on the legacy of racist systems, we have to examine them all.”
Assigning the tax assessor’s office to also serve as the voter registrar began in 1902 when the Texas Legislature amended the constitution to require anyone who wanted to vote to pay a poll tax. After Texas’ poll tax ended in 1966, the tax assessor remained in charge of voter rolls.
“Today there are Harris County voters who must submit their registration to the same office they previously had to pay a poll tax. The current system we have is a relic of Jim Crow and is as much of an insult to voters as having to walk into a polling center named for Robert E Lee,” Ellis said.
Although Commissioners Court approves the creation of the position, the elections administrator is appointed by the county’s bi-partisan Election Commission, which is comprised of the county judge as chair; the county clerk as vice-chair; the county tax assessor-collector as secretary; and the county chair of each political party.
The Elections Administrator office is strongly supported by national voting rights experts, community-based organizations, and has been successfully adopted by local governments throughout the nation. With today’s vote, Harris County is joining Bexar, Dallas, and Tarrant Counties in establishing county elections administrator positions.
As noted in the Chron story, not everyone liked this – here the post Ann Harris Bennett made on Facebook asking fellow Democrats to oppose this. I’d say I’m ambivalent about it. I definitely see the perspective of other Dems who argue that we worked hard to elect people like Bennett and Trautman in part on their promises to do elections better, and it feels wrong to take that away from them. On the other hand, most other big counties in Texas, like Bexar and Dallas, have elections administrators, and they’re doing fine. I can’t say I’m excited about this, but I understand Commissioner Ellis’ reasons, I trust what he and Commissioner Garcia and Judge Hidalgo are doing, and I see no reason to be up in arms about this. I’m willing to give this a try, especially since it won’t happen until after this year’s election.
I’m working to set up an interview with Commissioner Ellis about this, so if there’s a question you’d like to ask him about this, let me know. The Texas Signal has more.