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Houston-area officials announce impending lawsuit over GOP elections oversight bills

One of the measures will force Texas’ biggest county to make major changes to its voting management just weeks before early polls open for the Nov. 7 Houston mayoral election.

HOUSTON (CN) — Texas Republicans have passed two bills that will make drastic changes to how elections are run in Harris County, a Democratic stronghold and home of Houston. The county’s attorney says they violate the state Constitution and has vowed to sue.

Harris County, population 4.7 million, has more residents than 26 U.S. states and with 1,778 square-miles, it is bigger than Rhode Island.

Managing elections in its sprawling jurisdiction is daunting. On Election Day last November, a handful of the county’s 782 polling places ran out of ballot paper, had voting equipment malfunctions or opened late.

Claiming that GOP-leaning precincts took the brunt of the paper shortages, Republicans called for the ouster of Harris County Elections Administrator Clifford Tatum, who had just started the job in August following his appointment by county officials.

Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott demanded an investigation into the missteps. And 17 losing Republican candidates filed lawsuits challenging the results, claiming the county had prevented eligible GOP voters from casting their ballots.

None of those challenges has been successful. And a Houston Chronicle investigation found it is impossible to figure out how many people, and from which party, did not vote due to a lack of ballot paper or equipment glitches because they had ample opportunity to submit their ballots even if they were prevented from doing so at their preferred precinct. Since May 2019, Harris County has allowed voters to fill out their ballots at any of the county’s precincts.

Tatum’s office did its own probe and issued a report in December, finding no conclusive evidence of intentional disenfranchisement and recommending the county invest in a system for real-time tracking of technical issues and ballot paper distribution.

Tatum’s travails added to the poor track record of Harris County’s election administrators, despite his impressive resume. He is the former interim director of Georgia’s elections division, executive director of Washington D.C.’s elections board and general counsel of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

His predecessor, Isabel Longoria, the first person appointed to the post, resigned shortly after the March 1, 2022, primary amid heavy criticism from Republicans about a vote count delay caused by her staff not initially accounting for 10,000 mail-in ballots.

Republican state Senator Paul Bettencourt, owner of a Houston tax consulting business, seized on the county’s problems and drafted a bill, SB 1750, to do away with its election administrator and return the responsibilities of managing elections and registering voters to two elected officials, the county clerk and tax assessor-collector, respectively.

Asserting the bill has nothing to do with politics, Bettencourt, who served as Harris County’s tax assessor-collector and voter registrar from 1999 to 2009, says he believes the county’s elections ran smoother under the old regime and election officials should be accountable to voters.

But he wrote another bill, SB 1933, that will allow the Texas secretary of state to subject the county’s election officials to “administrative oversight” and file lawsuits to remove them from office.

Republican state lawmakers passed both bills along party lines after amending them to apply to just one of the state’s 254 counties: Harris.

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee announced Wednesday he will sue soon as Governor Abbott signs them into law.

Menefee, a Democrat and the county’s first Black attorney, noted that all the officials affected by the bills — Tatum, County Clerk Teneshia Hudspeth and Tax Assessor-Collector Ann Harris Bennett — are also Black.

“Enough is enough,” Menefee said at a press conference. “We’re suing the state of Texas to protect Harris County, to protect Harris County residents and to protect our public officials and to stop the state from targeting us.”

“The Texas Constitution is clear: The legislators can’t pass laws that target one specific city or one specific county,” he continued. “And that constitutional ban makes a whole lot of sense. We don’t want our lawmakers going to Austin, taking their personal vendettas with them and passing laws that target local government, instead of doing what’s in the best interest of Texans.”

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, its chief elected official, not a court of law judge, pointed out that Bell County in central Texas also had problems last Election Day. She said eight of its 42 voting centers opened an hour late.

“I don’t see them taking over elections in Bell County,” said Hidalgo, a Democrat.

“The idea that no county is encountering these kinds of issues is clearly false... There is never a perfect election... And they haven’t proved that a single voter was disenfranchised in Harris County,” she added.

Hidalgo also noted that nine of the state’s 10 most-populous counties have an elections administrator. “But they want to eliminate ours,” she said.

Houston’s Democratic Mayor Sylvester Turner urged the Justice Department to investigate.

He also complained that the latest GOP bills follow up on restrictions Texas Republicans passed during a special session in 2021 that also targeted Harris County.

SB 1 banned drive-thru and 24-hour voting, innovations implemented by Harris County officials for the November 2020 presidential election to ease voting amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In his eighth year in office, Turner is term-limited. Houstonians will be electing his replacement Nov. 7. All of Houston’s 16 City Council seats are also on the ballot.

Early voting starts Oct. 23 which will give Harris County little time, absent court intervention, to move management of the election from Tatum, its elections administration, to Hudspeth, its county clerk.

That is because SB 1750 is set to take effect Sept. 1. So is SB 1933.

Menefee, the county clerk, said an amendment was proposed to delay passage of SB 1750 to spare the county from having to make a major transition weeks before the election.

“That amendment was voted down by the Republican-led Texas House,” he said.

Categories:Government, Politics

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