House and Senate bills filed by Republican lawmakers in response to Harris County’s mismanagement of its recent elections could give the Texas secretary of state the authority to step in, suspend county election administrators when a complaint is filed and appoint a replacement administrator.
Election administration experts told Votebeat the legislation was an overreaction to the desire to hold Harris County accountable for years of election mismanagement, and would disrupt the state’s ability to help county election offices improve and address systemic problems.
If passed, the secretary of state’s office would change from being a guide and resource for election workers to being an auditor that can investigate and fire them. Some election officials are concerned this change could prevent local election workers from asking questions or seeking help from the office for fear of being reprimanded.
“Currently we work hand-in-hand. [The secretary of state’s staff] are our No. 1 resource, and that benefits all voters,” said Jennifer Doinoff, Hays County elections administrator. “Putting them in the position of oversight would definitely change the dynamic.”
Authored by state Rep. Tom Oliverson and state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, both Harris County Republicans, the bills are among several already filed this legislative session in reaction to the long lines, late openings and reports of shortages of ballot paper on Election Day in Harris County. More than 20 lawsuits from losing Republican candidates have also been filed against the county, citing those problems and seeking a redo of the election. Harris County Elections Administrator Cliff Tatum did not respond to Votebeat’s request for his comment about the legislation.
House Bill 2020 and Senate Bill 823 would allow the secretary of state’s office to take action in a county if a complaint is filed by one of several officials and organizations involved in elections, and if there’s “good cause to believe that a recurring pattern of problems with election administration exists.”
The bills list five causes for suspension of an elections administrator:
Currently, any problems that arise in an election or with an elections administrator are handled by the county’s election commission. Those commissions are made up of the county judge, the tax assessor-collector, the county clerk and the chairs of local political parties. The commission’s oversight powers allow it to appoint, terminate or accept the resignation of the county’s election administrator.
Some Texas voting rights groups worry the Legislature will use the problems in Harris and those lawsuits as “an excuse” to advance bills such as these. The League of Women Voters of Texas in a statement last week said such legislation, if passed, “is fraught for potential abuse, infringes on the rights of county governments to select their own elections administrator, and demeans the meaning of local governance.”
Slightly more than half of Texas counties appoint nonpartisan election administrators to run their elections. This legislation would apply only in those counties and not in the 122 that elect county clerks or tax assessors tasked with running elections and handling voter registration.
“We are subject to the authorities of those that appointed us,” said Remi Garza, Cameron County elections administrator and the Texas Association of Elections Administrators legislative committee co-chair. “It does cause concern that somebody from outside that jurisdiction would be able to usurp the authority of the elections commission in dealing with their elections administrator.”
There’s more, but I don’t have the mental energy to continue, so go read the rest for yourself. This story came out the same day that a Senate committee approved a bill making “illegal” voting a felony with even harsher punishments and lower standards for “illegality” than before. So, you know, a banner Monday.
My first thought is that I’m not really clear what these guys are aiming at. I mean, Harris County could in effect call their bluff, restore election administration to the County Clerk, have Cliff Tatum move over and be the chief of elections under Teneshia Hudspeth, and this bill would no longer apply to us. Democrats would still be running the elections. Maybe they actually think Stan Stanart can win that ridiculous election contest, I don’t know. At this level, this is just weird.
Second, these bills – I assume they’re identical in each chamber – are just a mess. The story goes into detail about how absurdly vague the provisions are, which could put a whole lot of election administrators in solidly red counties in danger if something goes wrong, as things sometimes do. I obviously wouldn’t expect the Secretary of State to crack down on, say, Bell County as they’re slavering to do to Harris, but it could be that the first example to be made is in a red place. This is what happens when you let your rage control you.
(Of course, if we had managed to pass a federal voting rights law over the past two years, we wouldn’t be talking about any of this now. But hey, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema preserved the filibuster, so.)
Third, I kind of suspect that in the same way that the TEA probably doesn’t actually want to take over HISD, the SOS probably wants no part of administering Harris County elections. It’s big, it’s hard to do, and most importantly now everything that goes wrong is your fault. Who wants that? But the Republicans in the Lege don’t care about that. Slapping around Harris County is the point. If there’s collateral damage, so be it.
And finally, with a less-predatory state government, we could have a reasoned discussion and admit there are problems that could be fixed with some help from that state government and Lege find ways to do elections better that aren’t predicated on punishment and the exercise of raw power. And if I flap my arms and think happy thoughts, I could fly.
I’ve made the decision to pay less attention to the Lege than I have in the past because I don’t need the mental torment. The Republicans are gonna do what they’re gonna do, and we can’t stop them. One fine day we’ll win enough elections to make it stop, but until then this is what we’re gonna get. I don’t know what else to say.