HOUSTON (CN) — Harris County officials Tuesday approved hiring administrative staff for its new elections management office, brushing off Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s threat to sue the state’s largest county over its formation of the independent office.
Fresh off a presidential election in which a record-breaking 1.65 million Harris County residents voted, the county's leaders thought they had put election season litigation behind them.
Paxton, a Republican, successfully sued former Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins in August to block him from sending absentee ballot applications to the county's 2.4 million registered voters and threw his support behind lawsuits filed by Republicans in October that unsuccessfully attempted to invalidate 127,000 votes people cast from their vehicles in drive-thru voting booths.
Paxton is now taking issue with how Harris County, a Democratic stronghold in the majority Republican state and the third most-populous county in the U.S., established its elections administration office this summer and appointed Isabel Longoria as elections administrator.
Some people have criticized Harris County's leaders for launching the new office, which started operating Nov. 18, and taking election management and voter registration duties away from two Black elected officials — newly elected Harris County Clerk Teneshia Hudspeth and Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Ann Harris Bennett, who was reelected in November — and giving them to appointee Longoria.
One of their most vocal critics is Tomaro Bell, a Black woman who is president of the MacGregor Park Super Neighborhood Association.
"I don't believe this would have occurred if it was two males in these seats instead of historically the first two African Americans to hold these seats and yet you are moving forward with this," Bell told the Harris County Commissioners Court in its bimonthly meeting Tuesday. “I truly hope this office is nullified.”
Harris County's consolidation of election duties into a single office comes after most of the other largest counties in the state have already done so, including Bexar County, home to San Antonio, and Dallas County.
But Paxton claims Harris did it in a way that ran afoul of state law.
The attorney general sent the county a letter last week, claiming the "Harris County Office of Election Administrator does not exist" and Longoria's appointment as its chief "is a nullity and should be rescinded" because the county did not notify the Texas Secretary of State within three days after establishing the elections office or within six days after appointing Longoria as required by the Texas Election Code.
After breaking from their meeting to take up Paxton's letter in a closed-door session Tuesday, the commissioners court, comprised of two Republicans and three Democrats, said they were not taking any action on it.
Paxton said in his letter the county must take "corrective action to cure the deficiencies identified by the Secretary of State" by Dec. 9 or the "state will pursue appropriate legal remedies."
But First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard told the Houston Chronicle all required documentation regarding the election administration office has been sent to the secretary of state. Soard said in Tuesday's meeting that county lawyers would respond with a letter to Paxton.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo called Paxton's threats a "distraction" before joining her Democratic colleagues on the board in approving by a 3-2 vote three administrative positions for the new elections office. Hidalgo is the county's chief executive, not a court of law judge.
As the new elections administrator Longoria is already busy with her first round of elections, overseeing 14 early voting locations for five races that will be decided in a Dec. 12 runoff election.
Paxton said in his letter that Keith Ingram, director of elections for the Texas Secretary of State's Office, had notified him about Harris County not following the rules in setting up the elections administration office.
But Longoria seemed to undercut Paxton's threats of litigation Tuesday, telling the commissioners, "We've been working with the secretary of state to set up the office. So we're all systems go."
Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, a Democrat and former state lawmaker, maintains the old way of giving the county's tax assessor authority over voter registration is a vestige of the Jim Crow era when tax collectors collected poll taxes, which were implemented to block Black people from voting.
Ellis said in Tuesday's meeting he's proud of how the county achieved record turnout for the November elections by greatly expanding the number of early polling places, introducing drive-thru voting and keeping the polls open 24-hours straight for one day of early voting.
"I think this just amounts to another example of Attorney General Paxton using his office to attack the voting rights of Texans and restrict access to the ballot," Ellis said.
"I think part of the fear is that this office will be as successful on registering people in the future ... as they were in handling the last election with record turnout and the ease for people to participate in the process," he added.
Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, a Republican, said he does not believe Paxton has any such "evil intent" in insisting the county follow state election laws, and he voted against establishing the elections administration office because it cuts voters out from choosing who will manage elections and voter registration.
"We are taking authority away from two duly elected African American females, which is historic for us to have that in this county,” Cagle said. “I do like the idea, and have said so from the very beginning, that we should have our elected officials be accountable to the public.”Follow @@cam_langford
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