Elections 2020Statewide NewsCounties on Up: Texas’ Decentralized Electoral Structure

Unlike other states, Texas has a bottom-up electoral system with the counties handling the lion's share of the responsibilities when it comes to the state's elections.
November 3, 2020
Nearly 10 million Texans have cast ballots for the general election just through early voting — already more than the entire 2016 turnout. This turnout tidal wave has strained elections staff and tested the patience of voters, but problems were mostly few and far between in a state with just shy of 17 million registered voters.

Where problems or, more frequently, honest questions, did arise, Secretary of State Ruth Hughs — the state’s top elections official — bore the brunt of the inquiry. But Hughs is not a puppet master behind the scenes pulling the strings of Texas’ electoral operations.

Two sentences in state code sum up the role of the secretary of state:

“Sec. 31.004. (a) The secretary of state shall assist and advise all election authorities with regard to the application, operation, and interpretation of this code and of the election laws outside this code. (b) The secretary shall maintain an informational service for answering inquiries of election authorities relating to the administration of the election laws or the performance of their duties.”

The first thing which must be understood is that elections are run at the county level. Picture that food pyramid all schoolchildren have learned about — replacing the food categories with federal, state, and county elections administrations in descending order — and one has a basic illustration of the state’s election functionality.

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Stephen Chang, SOS spokesman, told The Texan, “Texas has a decentralized elections system, and elections in our state are by and large run from the bottom up by the counties as opposed to the top-down model that some other states employ.”

The SOS sets guidelines and oversees at arms-length the elections administration process. It is mostly a guiding office and cannot issue new procedural orders like the governor or certain county clerks.

“Counties are responsible for running elections, purchasing equipment, implementing procedures, and making staffing decisions. Our role at the Secretary of State’s Office involves advising and assisting counties in the conduct of their elections to ensure that Texas’ electoral process is safe, smooth, and secure,” Chang added.

He concluded, “To that end, we remain in constant communication with counties to ensure that Texas voters are able to confidently cast their ballot.”

A typical point of frustration every election is the timeliness of reported results and other data metrics. At root, this is the most well-known function of elections offices among the general populace.

On election night, most eyes anxiously peruse the SOS’s website — cursors relentlessly tapping the refresh button like gamblers checking the score of the game on which they bet.

But it’s not the SOS that normally causes delays in reports. The numbers come directly from the county elections administrations — all 254 of them. “Herding cats” might be putting it lightly.

The county clerks and elections administrations handle most, if not all, of the day-to-day and voter-facing responsibilities. But it’s not as if the counties have an easy job assigned to them.

Designing protocols, organizing labor forces, and troubleshooting equipment for 254 counties, wildly different in size and scope, is no small task. The needs and tools at hand of Harris and Dallas Counties are far different than those of Fort Bend and Loving Counties.

While bigger counties have vastly larger populations to manage, they often have much larger staff pools to cope with the influx. However, some smaller counties have a less-than-proportional elections workforce to their voting population — and it can be incredibly difficult to operate efficiently.

Disparities between county elections offices not only exist in manpower, but also in technology even for something as simple as electronic voting or paper ballots. But the technological capabilities to record, store, and transfer the information can vary substantially, too. 

The state manages the master voter registration database and so, when a new voter registration comes into a county elections office, it is forwarded to the SOS for verification against Texas Department of Public Safety records. Once verified, the approved application is sent back to the county and the newly registered voter is added to the county’s rolls.

The most visible component of the system comes when ballots are cast. To facilitate that, counties establish voting locations; secure the supplies and troubleshooting necessary equipment; and staff precincts with poll workers.

Bruce Sherbet has run Collin County’s elections since 2015. “When you look at the scope of an election, everything is really done at the county level with oversight to some level from the state,” he told The Texan.

Clarification of and guidance on statute, rules, and procedures is much of what the state offers, but localities have discretion on anything not violating state law. For example, Texas has limited absentee voting, requiring that absentee voters be either 65-years of age or older, have a “disability” which prevents them from voting safely in person, or will be out of their home county on Election Day.

The state regulates to whom that applies, but it’s up to the counties to make the determinations whenever an absentee application is submitted.

Absentee ballots became a hot-button issue when the Texas Democratic Party filed a lawsuit asserting that lack of immunity to coronavirus constituted a “disability” under statute. That challenge was rejected by the Supreme Court of Texas (SCOTX) as was another federal challenge to the age limit.

Most absentee ballot requests are accepted by the county at face value and the recourse for a hypothetical fraudulent application comes after the fact wherein the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) can prosecute perpetrators of voter fraud.

Two notable examples of this have recently occurred. A Gregg County Commissioner and his conspirators were charged with 134 counts of election fraud, including falsifying mail-in ballots, in a 2018 Democratic Primary which the official won by a mere five votes.

The other occurred two weeks ago when a current Carrollton mayoral candidate was arrested for forging voter registration applications. At the time of arrest, law enforcement caught him in the process of stuffing envelopes with fraudulent mail ballot applications. And still yet another is being investigated by the OAG after Project Veritas released an undercover video of below board behavior in San Antonio.

Allegations of fraud can be sent to the SOS which then, after a minor validity evaluation, can refer the complaint to the OAG for a more thorough investigation.

More benign responsibilities include providing calendars of events of which counties need to be aware and further relays instruction. Sherbet added, “Not a hand-to-hand partner, the SOS is rather an overseer, purveyor of advice, and to be a clearinghouse of information.”

Occasionally, Sherbet added, the state can tardily relay information to the counties which cause issues. This occurred when the Fifth Circuit Court overruled a district’s judge suspension of Governor Abbott’s order that exempted voting from the state’s mask mandate. Sherbet said the state was delayed in relaying news of the injunction to the counties, which caused confusion that day at the polls.

On Tuesday night, Sherbet and his staff in Collin County will have early voting tallies pretty soon after polls close at 7:00 p.m. Being a county over 100,000 in population, they’re allowed to start counting mail ballots and uploading the results. While not released until polls close on Tuesday, getting this done ahead of time allows the given county elections staff to avoid a backlog on Election Night — and will be especially helpful this year with such high early vote turnout.

Sherbet said that just before daybreak on November 4, everything should conclude — military and overseas ballots notwithstanding, which may come in a handful of days after the election.

Once Election Day concludes, the canvassing process begins — another function handled primarily at the local level. Canvassing is essentially double-checking the election results, verifying their accuracy.

In addition to the election administrations, counties have separate entities called “ballot boards” — usually comprised of officials with the county as well as representatives of each party. These ballot boards are what verify absentee applications and ballots when questions arise.

“They’re basically like bank auditors,” Sherbet said of the body on which he sits in addition to his administrative role, “but they mostly handle early voting and don’t shoulder much of the election day burden.”

Human nature tends to bring out a centralizing focus on one thing at which to point when problems or questions arise. Being the top elections official, it is natural and understandable for immediate reaction to be levied at the SOS.

But with a decentralized electoral structure and varied capabilities from county to county, treating the SOS as the sole scapegoat for any delays or problems that may arise would be misaimed frustration.

Elections are, by nature, complicated and difficult affairs to facilitate. But as Tuesday unfolds and numbers come in, know that it is the counties which shouldered the bulk of the effort — and did so, by and large, timely and effectively.

The sun will come up on November 4, just as it did two, four, and 171 years ago — a phenomenon welcomed with open arms by Texas’ elections staff every morning after the first Tuesday following the first Monday of November.


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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.