“Republican legislators are again targeting Harris County, singling us out to score cheap political points,” said Menefee in a statement Tuesday. “This sets a dangerous precedent, and we all know the legislators in Austin won’t stop here — this will lead to more attempts to remove local officials in the state’s most diverse counties.”
Menefee objected to two bills approved in the Texas House Monday: Senate Bill (SB) 1750 and SB 1933.
Authored by Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) and sponsored in the House by Rep. Briscoe Cain (R-Deer Park), SB 1750 requires counties with populations greater than 3.5 million to return elections responsibilities from the appointed elections administrator to the elected tax assessor-collector & voter registrar and the elected county clerk.
SB 1933, also authored by Bettencourt, allows the Texas secretary of state to exercise “administrative oversight” if there are credible complaints of irregularities, but only in counties with populations of 4 million or more.
Prior to the vote on Monday, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo lambasted Republican lawmakers for SB 1750 and other similar bills, arguing that the appointed administrator improved public trust in elections and increased efficiency.
“The past … couple of legislative sessions, laws have been passed to make it harder for us to conduct our elections,” said Hidalgo in a social media statement. “In the face of those challenges we’ve created the elections administrators office which as I mentioned has helped us move through those hurdles and conduct elections efficiently.”
In July 2020, the Harris County Commissioners Court voted 3 to 2 along partisan lines to create a new office of the county administrator. The move drew bipartisan opposition in the county, where two Democratic women, Taneshia Hudspeth and Ann Harris Bennett, had been elected to the offices of county clerk and tax assessor-collector & voter registrar, respectively.
Commissioners initially approved the appointment of Isabel Longoria — a former staffer to then-state Sen. Sylvia Garcia — who had little experience managing elections. After multiple election snafus that included leaving 10,000 ballots out of the 2022 primary election totals, Longoria resigned.
In August 2022, the county hired former Washington D.C. Executive Director of Elections Clifford Tatum despite concerns over his performance at the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
Delayed openings, malfunctioning equipment, and a ballot paper shortage at multiple locations during the 2022 general election in Harris County have drawn lawsuits from civil rights groups and the county’s local Republican Party, a still-pending criminal investigation, and multiple election contests.
In a preliminary analysis of the election published earlier this year, Tatum acknowledged that 68 precinct judges reported paper ballot shortages and blamed delayed openings on staffing shortages and the Houston Astros’ World Series victory celebrations the day before the election. Tatum noted that his investigation was not conclusive and that more research would be needed.
In the aftermath of the election, investigative reporter Wayne Dolcefino and other media sought public records related to the election, including communications between Tatum and other county and state officials. The county has refused to release the requested records and has sued Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton over the matter.
Last week, the Harris County Commissioners Court hired law firm Brady and Peavey “in connection with matters pending before the 88th Session of the Texas Legislature.” Attorney and independent journalist Mark McCaig noted that former partner of the firm Hugh Brady is currently serving as one of the Texas House parliamentarians this session.
Multiple attempts from House Democrats on Monday to block SB 1750 and other bills impacting Harris County elections through parliamentary procedure were unsuccessful, and the proposal was finally passed 81 to 62 Tuesday afternoon.
However, if SB 1750 is signed by Gov. Greg Abbott, then management of Harris County’s elections will be returned to two Democratic officeholders; Hidalgo had said the measure was part of an effort to “give one party a leg up in our elections,” referring to the GOP.
Menefee vowed to provide specifics in the coming days.
“I want to be clear: this fight is not over. We are evaluating our legal options and expect to share more later this week,” wrote Menefee. “We cannot and will not allow the state to illegally target Harris County.”
After the House approved SB 1750, Bettencourt cited issues with the November election, saying, “after six months the current elections administrator still hasn’t publicly explained what happened.”
“An appointed elections administrator that either couldn’t or wouldn’t get millions of sheets of ballot paper from the warehouse to the polls for voters to vote on last November 8th, will be gone by September 1,” he continued.
In a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Hidalgo again accused lawmakers of violating “the principles of small government.”
“We’re back at Orwellian doublespeak that began with Trump,” said Hidalgo, who also accused media reporting on the county’s elections lawsuits and contests of “amplifying exaggerations and rumors.”
Editor’s note: This piece has been updated with additional comments from Bettencourt and Hidalgo.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the names of the Harris County clerk and tax assessor-collector & voter registrar.
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Holly Hansen is a reporter for The Texan living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.