The election administrator’s office in Texas’ most populous county – Harris County, which is home to Houston – has been dismantled to comply with a new state law passed by Republican legislators that officially takes effect Friday.
The law, known as SB 1750, shifts responsibility for elections and voter registration to the county clerk and the county tax assessor-collector. Critics have cast the measure, along with a second newly enacted law, as a power grab by Texas’ GOP-led legislature to disrupt how elections are run in an increasingly blue bastion of this traditionally red state.
The elimination of the election administrator’s position comes just weeks before the start of early voting in the race for Houston mayor and other local offices, and it marks one of several efforts by Republicans around the country to exert more control over election administration ahead of 2024’s consequential presidential and congressional contests.
A separate state law – known as SB 1933 and also passed this year – authorizes the Texas secretary of state, who is appointed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, to order “administrative oversight” of a county elections office, if complaints are filed and there’s reason to believe there’s a recurring pattern of problems with election administration.
SB 1750 and SB 1933 apply to counties with a population of more than 3.5 million and 4 million people, respectively – criteria met only by Harris County.
“State Republicans either cannot win over the voters of Harris County – or they don’t want to try,” said Emily Eby French, a voting rights staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, which has criticized the laws. “Instead, they are trying to suppress the vote in Harris County to have less of an impact on elections in Texas.”
Texas Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston-area Republican who sponsored both laws, has said the measure abolishing the election administrator’s office was crafted to address irregularities in last year’s contests, including ballot-paper shortages in the general election and a discrepancy in mail-in votes during the March 2022 primary.
“This bill has always been about performance, not politics,” Bettencourt said in a statement.
In July, Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee sued to block SB 1750 from taking effect, saying it violated the state’s constitution because it disbanded the election administrator’s position only in Harris County while leaving in place similar structures in other parts of the state.
The county secured a temporary injunction from a lower court. But the state appealed, and the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court allowed the law to take effect. The underlying challenge from Menefee, however, is still pending, and the state’s high court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in late November.
In 2020, former President Donald Trump carried Texas, but Joe Biden outperformed Trump by double digits in Harris County – underscoring its Democratic tilt.
On Tuesday, the Harris County Commissioners Court, which oversees the county government, took steps to dismantle the election administrator’s office. The panel unanimously authorized the transfer of some 170 employees – along with money and equipment – from the elections office to the agencies charged with carrying out those jobs under the new law.
The county officials who will now take on election duties say they have worked together to create a smooth transition with the goal of avoiding any disruptions ahead of the November 7 election.
“While we can all agree that this is not an ideal situation, I’m committed to doing the job before me with your support,” Harris County Clerk Teneshia Hudspeth told the commissioners this week.
Hudspeth’s office will handle election administration, and the office of Tax Assessor-Collector Ann Harris Bennett will maintain voter rolls. Both are Democrats, who were elected to their posts. Both offices handled those duties prior to the creation of the elections administrator position in 2020.
The outgoing elections administrator Clifford Tatum had been selected by a Democratic-controlled county elections commission last year.
Eby French of the Texas Civil Rights Project said both women now in charge are competent administrators, but she worries about yet another change in Harris County so close to Election Day.
“I don’t think there’s a person in the state who can get such a big job weeks before early voting and run the kind of elections that a big county deserves,” she said. “I know that they will do their best … but it will be despite the state, not because of the state.”
Early voting in Harris County begins October 23.