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New Texas law gives secretary of state the power to intervene in Harris County elections

A bill Republicans shaped behind closed doors directs the state to investigate and supervise the county’s election administration, even targeting officials for removal.

A line of people wearing bright safety vests pull equipment from a parking lot and into a building
Ballots and scanning machines arrive at central counting after polls close in Houston, Tuesday Nov 8, 2022. (Michael Stravato for the Texas Tribune)

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Texas Republicans have muscled through legislation allowing unprecedented state interventions into elections in Harris County, the most populous county in Texas, threatening to drastically overhaul elections in the Democratic stronghold.

The bills targeting Harris, which would eliminate its chief elections official and allow state officials to intervene and supervise the county’s elections in response to administrative complaints, are headed to the governor’s desk. 

Lawmakers say they’re responding to repeated election issues in Harris County, which includes the city of Houston. The county, for its part, has signaled it will challenge the bid to remove its elections administrator and is portraying the bills as a partisan power grab and the latest in a series of legislative moves by Texas Republicans to tighten access to the ballot in the wake of the 2020 presidential election.    

Some election and policy experts say the moves set a bad precedent, mirror strategies recently used by GOP-led legislatures in Florida and Georgia to gain control of local elections, and could signal state lawmakers’ intention to seek control in counties beyond Harris. The continual changes to elections administration in Texas, which intensified in 2021 with the sweeping voting bill Senate Bill 1, could also foster public distrust, said Daniel Griffith, senior policy director at Secure Democracy USA. 

“Election administration should really be something that’s stable and something that people can rely on,” Griffith said. 

Instead, the bills represent the latest battle in the partisan war over how elections should be run in Texas, and who should oversee them. 

Senate Bill 1933, authored by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Harris County Republican, grants the Texas secretary of state the authority to investigate election “irregularities” after complaints are filed — but only in counties with more than 4 million people, which means just Harris County. 

The office, which until now has had less authority than nearly any other state’s chief election authority, will be able to remove a county election administrator or to file a petition to remove an elected county officer overseeing elections, such as a county clerk, if “a recurring pattern of problems” isn’t resolved. 

After the measure goes into effect in September, administrative election complaints that are filed with the secretary of state’s Elections Division, led by Christina Adkins, can trigger an investigation. 

Examples of recurring problems that could trigger state oversight include:

  • Malfunction of voting system equipment that prevents a voter from casting a vote.
  • Carelessness or official misconduct in the distribution of election supplies.
  • Errors in the tabulation of results that would have affected the outcome of an election.
  • Failure to meet deadlines for reporting election results.
  • Discovery of properly executed voted ballots after the canvass of an election that were not counted. 
  • Failure to conduct maintenance activities on the lists of registered voters as required under the Texas Election Code.

State officials must conduct an investigation, but if they find “good cause to believe” there is a “recurring pattern of problems,” Adkins could then order state oversight of Harris County’s elections. The secretary of state’s Elections Division could then have personnel on the ground, observing any activities related to election preparation, early voting, election day, and post-election day procedures. 

The state’s oversight can last for up to two years or until the office determines the “recurring pattern of problems” has been resolved. 

If such problems aren’t resolved, the secretary of state could then get rid of Harris County election officials, though a second bill passed by Republicans, Senate Bill 1750, could make that more complex. That bill removes Harris County’s elections administrator position, reshaping how the county oversees elections. 

That law also goes into effect in September — only months before Harris’ municipal election. It will transfer election duties back to the county clerk and tax assessor-collector’s office. To remove an elected official such as the county clerk, the secretary of state would have to request the removal, but the final decision would be determined through a jury trial.

Last week, Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said the county was preparing to sue the state over the new measures

“The Texas Constitution is clear: The Legislature can’t pass laws that target one specific city or one specific county,” Menefee said. 

County Judge Lina Hidalgo tweeted Sunday that legislators in Texas “are still trying to disenfranchise 4.7 million of their own constituents by taking over elections in Harris County. This fight is far from over,” she said. “This is a shameless power grab and dangerous precedent.” 

Last November, Harris County had to extend voting for an hour after various polling places had malfunctioning voting machines, paper ballot shortages, and long waiting periods. More than 20 lawsuits from losing Republican candidates have been filed against the county, citing those problems and seeking a redo of the election. 

Clifford Tatum, the county’s second elections administrator since the position was created in 2020, was hired only two months before November’s election. At the time, Harris County’s  elections department lacked a tracking system used by other large counties to identify issues in real time and for months could not say how many polling locations ran out of paper on Election Day or whether anyone was prevented from voting. A recent investigation by the Houston Chronicle found that out of the more than 782 polling locations, only about 20 ran out of paper. 

Bettencourt declared throughout the legislative session that Harris County’s election problems in the past year were the “genesis” of his proposals. Bettencourt has denied the pieces of legislation are political in nature and called the passage of his bills a “victory.” He said in a tweet Sunday that the legislation means “the problems of the defunct Harris County Elections Administrator should be a thing of the past!”

Initially introduced as a measure that would allow the secretary of state to randomly select small counties to conduct election audits, Senate Bill 1933 was amended multiple times during the session as part of a slew of Republican-led measures aimed at scrutinizing and supervising Harris County’s elections. 

Weeks later, when the bill made it to the House chamber, it was amended behind closed doors and without any public input until it eventually affected only counties with a population of more than 4 million residents, meaning only Harris County. 

Katya Ehresman, voting rights program director with Common Cause Texas, said voters, county officials, and election administrators should have been given the opportunity to testify about legislation set to directly impact them. 

Ehresman said that process was concerning and “against values of transparency and public input, which should be core parts of the legislative process.” 

Another state election oversight bill proposed by Bettencourt died in the House after it didn’t meet key deadlines. Senate Bill 1039 would have allowed the secretary of state, following a complaint of election “irregularities,” to appoint a conservator to oversee elections in a county when violations of the Election Code were identified. 

On Monday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick sent a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott asking him to consider potentially reviving SB 1039 in a special session in the coming months. 

Griffith said if that bill is revived, it could be a way for the Legislature to exert election oversight over all counties instead of just in Harris. 

Voting rights activists say the approved bills could threaten Texas counties’ ability to maintain a nonpartisan election process. 

“These bills do have a tangible effect on voter turnout, voter apathy, and on the ability for elections administrators to do their job free from threats and free from partisan pressures,” Ehresman said. “The discourse surrounding Texas election reform continues to be punitive and continues to be rooted in misinformation. And that will have a permanent damage on recruitment [of election workers] and election administration going forward.” 

Natalia Contreras covers election administration and voting access for Votebeat in partnership with the Texas Tribune. Contact Natalia at ncontreras@votebeat.org.

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