Last week Special Counsel for the attorney general Kathleen Hunker sent a letter to Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan advising that the county had violated two sections of Texas Election Code in the process of creating a new Office of Elections Administrator and in appointing Isabel Longoria to fill that role.
Although the election code permits counties to use an elections administrator and many do so, the process requires timely notifications and documentation to be submitted to the Secretary of State’s Office, but since the county failed to follow the legally prescribed procedures, “the Harris County Office of Election Administrator does not exist,” according to the attorney general.
In her letter, Hunker instructed the county to rescind the appointment of Longoria, a former staffer for state Senator Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston) and state Rep. Jessica Farrar (D-Houston). Hunker added that the attorney general would seek legal remedies if the county did not take corrective action within 14 days.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Harris County Commissioners took up discussion of the issue in an executive session not open to the public, and afterward, First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said he was advising “no action.” Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) said that the county attorney’s office would be drafting a response to the attorney general.
Last July Democrats on the commissioners court voted to create the elections administrator’s office despite bipartisan opposition. Previously, those duties were divided between two publicly elected officials: the Tax Assessor-Collector & Voter Registrar and the County Clerk, but under the new structure, an appointed administrator will conduct all election activities.
At this week’s meeting of the commissioner’s court, Ellis claimed that Hunker’s letter provided “another example of General Paxton using his office to attack the voting rights of Texans.” Ellis also claimed the change was necessary since the previous structure had been established under the “Jim Crow” laws.
Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) pushed back against what he called Ellis’ “diatribe” against Paxton.
Referring to his years as a judge presiding over jury trials, Cagle said, “when we saw language like ‘shall’ and ‘must,’ that usually meant ‘shall’ and ‘must.’” Cagle said the portion of election code in question says each appointment “must be evidenced by a resolution,” and it “shall be filed.”
“When Paxton says we didn’t follow the rules I don’t think there is some evil intent behind it,” added Cagle.
Illustrating the bipartisan opposition to the county’s new elections structure, earlier Tuesday Tomaro Bell of the Super Neighborhood Alliance passionately voiced her objections before the judge and commissioners.
Bell vehemently dismissed Ellis’ argument that the change was necessary to undo a Jim Crow era structure. She instead noted that Taneshia Hudspeth and Ann Harris Bennet, both Democrats, were the first African Americans elected to the county clerk and voter registrar offices.
Harris Bennet has been vocally opposed to the change since she says the administration of elections should be directly accountable to voters. As a member of the county elections commission, she also voted against the appointment of Longoria.
In her testimony, Bell, who is also African American, scolded commissioners for creating the elections administrator through a process that lacked transparency.
“This is not about transparency, this is about control,” said Bell. “Who are you all to decide that what they voted for, what they desired, is no longer right?”
The commissioners court also voted 3 to 2 on party lines to add two new positions to the elections administrator’s office. Cagle and Radack voted against the new positions, citing questions about the legality of the office.
The attorney general’s office had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.
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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.