Harris County’s new Elections Administrator has a chat with the Chron’s Jen Rice about his new job and the fact that early voting starts in less than seven weeks.
Why did you start working in elections and why do you continue doing it?
I started out with the Georgia Secretary of State as a securities enforcement attorney. And after a couple of years, enforcing the securities law, the elections division needed a staff attorney. So I became the assistant director of legal affairs for the state elections division, which then worked with the Georgia Secretary of State on a number of issues related to the state election board, election law enforcement, election code enforcement. And I guess you could say that … I kind of got bit by the public service bug, and that foray into the elections division in 2002 has turned into a lifetime of public service. I enjoy the fact that I’m supporting democracy and helping voters express their voice.
When election-related topics come up at Harris County Commissioners Court meetings, two of the commissioners typically raise the argument that elections should be run by elected officials, not an appointed election administrator, which was the model used in Harris County until 2020. Do you have a response to that criticism?
If we talk about the the county clerk who was running the election side of the process, they were responsible for the election side, but they had to get the information to actually conduct the election from the tax assessor. The tax assessor was responsible for the voter registration side. At the end of the day, you’re looking to two separate entities for accountability. And that gap allows for there to be this flux of, what really happened here? So, combining the two offices, you avoid that. It now becomes a single unit that’s responsible for the entire operation. And you actually have a greater level of accountability because both operations are now under the same unit and the information flows much better because there’s not a go-between.
The mail ballot rejection rate is an ongoing issue in Harris County. What is your plan for getting the mail ballot rejection rate down and to what extent are you expecting to be able to address that for this election?
The good news is that the team here has now experienced the new mail ballot requirements for now, I think, three elections. We’ve made a lot of internal strides on how to assist voters in making sure they provide the correct information to allow their ballot not to be rejected. And then if they, for whatever reasons, fail to include that information, we’ve identified internal procedures to immediately respond back to the voter, highlighting what needs to be corrected in order for that ballot to be resolved and counted. The unfortunate aspect about all of that is time. If a voter waits too late, then there’s a likelihood that the voter can’t cure an issue if they didn’t provide the correct information.
I’m fairly optimistic that we’ll have a good experience this fall. Some of the factors on which Tatum will be judged are how well the equipment works and how easily equipment errors are overcome, how long the lines are, how many mail ballots are rejected, and how long it takes to see results and updates on Election Night. My hope is that he and his office will communicate quickly and effectively when there are any issues – it’s a big county, probably over a million people will be voting, there will be issues – so that at least everyone will have a chance to be informed and make adjustments. I intend to do an interview with him myself at some point, but that can wait until after this election.