In the latest proposal, Texas Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) and Rep. Briscoe Cain (R-Deer Park) are demanding that counties with a population of more than one million return elections management to elected officials they say will be more accountable to the public.
“Voters should have confidence in their elections, and when they see Harris County Elections Administrators botch election after election in 2022 that confidence is shaken,” said Bettencourt, who previously served as the Harris County tax assessor-collector & voter registrar.
Among large Texas counties, Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar, and Collin have appointed election administrators to manage elections. About half Texas’ 254 counties employ elections administrators, while the others give responsibility to elected officials such as the county clerk.
Prior to the 2021 election cycle, election responsibilities in Harris County were divided between the elected county tax assessor-collector & voter registrar and the elected county clerk. In 2020, the commissioners court voted 3 to 2 along partisan lines to create a new office of the elections administrator and later appointed Isabel Longoria, a former staffer to then-state Rep. Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston) to the new position.
Longoria’s tenure included multiple difficulties, and in the 2022 primary election, her office excluded 10,000 ballots from counts reported to a district court judge. In the aftermath, Longoria resigned and the county hired former Washington D.C. executive director of elections Clifford Tatum despite controversy over his performance at the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
Although Tatum assured auditors at the Texas Secretary of State’s Office that the county was prepared to correct past mistakes and manage elections, on Election Day 2022, the county was plagued by delayed openings, staffing shortages, malfunctioning equipment, and a ballot paper shortage that halted voting at a yet unknown number of polling locations.
As a result, the county faced lawsuits to keep polls open longer on Election Day, a lawsuit seeking the release of public records, and a criminal investigation currently being conducted by the district attorney’s office in conjunction with the Texas Rangers. Additionally, there are 21 election contests pending in state district courts arguing that the true outcome of the county’s elections cannot be known.
Under Senate Bill 1750 and House Bill 6385, Harris and other large counties would be required to restore the tax assessor-collector as a voter registrar, while the county clerk would be responsible for running the elections.
Cain noted the expansion of costs under Harris County’s elections administrator office, which ballooned from $4.1 million in 2016 to $29 million for Fiscal Year 2023, and said the change would have the additional benefit of saving taxpayer dollars.
“The Elections Administrator experiment in Harris County has failed,” said Cain in a press release.
“It doesn’t matter which election or Election Administrator, Texans know that Harris County will have issues and won’t report returns accurately or on time. As larger counties try to use this position as another bureaucrat meant to grow government, it’s important that voters have a say in who is running their elections. These counties have had ample opportunities to justify this position. The only thing they have done is dodge questions and find a way to blame someone else.”
Bettencourt and Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Tyler) have also filed a bill to create a “civil administrative review process” that would allow candidates and select elected and party officials to take complaints of election irregularities to the Texas Secretary of State’s Office for the purpose of launching election audits and assigning a conservator to take over a county’s elections.
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Holly Hansen is a regional 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.