The funds are from Houston Endowment, a private philanthropic institution that “enhances the vibrancy of greater Houston and advances equity of opportunity for the people who live here.” According to the press release, the grant to Harris County is intended to increase voter participation through an open data portal, analytics, and voter access, and will “incorporate best practices shared by other major cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco.”
“Our democracy is strengthened when all voters participate,” said Ann Stern, president and CEO of Houston Endowment. “We are pleased to support the [elections administrator’s] office in making advancements that increase our region’s electoral participation through training and infrastructure support.”
County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria said funds would create an online dashboard with real-time registered voter statistics, voter turnout data by neighborhood, “campaign finance analysis and much more.”
In voting to accept the grant, Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) thanked Houston Endowment for supporting increased voter participation in the county.
Both Republican commissioners, Tom Ramsey (Pct. 3) and Jack Cagle (Pct. 4), voted against the grant primarily due to legal issues surrounding the creation of the Office of Elections Administrator.
In 2020, Democrats on the court moved to take responsibility away from two elected positions and place duties under the control of an appointed elections administrator. Ellis says the new arrangement can focus resources on addressing issues he says “disproportionately impact Black and Brown communities” although it removed election administration duties from the two black women elected to be voter registrar and county clerk, Ann Harris Bennet and Taneshia Hudspeth.
The Texas attorney general’s office warned Harris County that the commissioners court had failed to follow legally prescribed procedures for creating an elections administrator, but the county has simply ignored instructions to rescind the appointment.
“I have consistently voted against anything dealing with the [elections administrator], even if I agreed with it, since it was not created appropriately according to the law,” Cagle told The Texan.
Ramsey also explained his vote as opposition to the creation of the new office of election administrator.
“In order to create this position, they removed these responsibilities from two elected officials. I believe this position should be accountable directly to the voter and will continue to advocate for this.”
Cagle also noted that the county’s election division had already received a sizable donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg just before the 2020 general election.
“The elections administrator views their job now to do all kinds of things the elections departments in counties do not normally do,” Cagle explained. “Among them is their push to increase voter involvement in underprivileged and disadvantaged communities as they define them.”
“Whereas it used to be the responsibility of the political parties to register voters and get them out to vote, we are now giving that job to the elections administrator.”
Private cash infusions into county elections divisions became a contentious issue during the 2020 election cycle as several organizations pumped millions into select counties with a heavy tilt towards Democratic candidates.
The most notable amounts were given by Chicago-based Center for Tech and Civic Life, (CTCL) which is primarily funded by Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan.
CTCL provided $9.6 million to Harris County and $15.1 million to Dallas County, purportedly to help provide “safe” elections under COVID-19 pandemic conditions. Other Texas counties receiving CTCL grants included Hays and Hopkins, and heavily blue Cameron County accepted $250,000 for the operations of its election from former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Activities to be supported by the grants have included poll worker recruitment, controversial drive-thru voting, and “voter education.”
The grants drew numerous lawsuits throughout the country and in Texas from groups alleging the funds constituted a violation of federal law since they circumvent each state’s authority to conduct elections, and favor Democrats running for office.
According to analysis from the Capital Research Center, Texas was among the most highly targeted states for CTCL grants in 2020 and may have contributed to increasing Democratic voter turnout by 36 percent from 2016.
In response to concerns over private funds used to transform elections, Abbott signed legislation last week that prohibits counties from accepting contributions valued at $1,000 or more from private individuals, businesses, or other third parties, unless the governor, lieutenant governor, and speaker of the house unanimously agree to allow the donation.
On social media, Abbott announced the law would ban “Zuckerbucks” in Texas, and said elections were “a government function not to be messed with by election influencers.”
Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), a co-sponsor of the legislation and the former Harris County voter registrar, decried Harris County’s attempts to mail out unsolicited absentee ballots, set up illegal ballot drop boxes, and other unprecedented elections activities as “due to the leftist progressive playbook.”
“These donations all around the state had the effect of overriding existing state election laws and common-sense election procedures. That’s why we needed this law.”
The ban on private grants for local elections departments takes effect on September 1, 2021.
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer 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.