Harris County Elections system has been under fire since the 2020 Midterm Elections and now, the Texas Legislature is pushing sweeping changes that could permanently alter the election system in the state’s largest county.

Republicans have targeted Harris County with voting-related bills in the last two legislative sessions. In 2021, lawmakers implemented Senate Bill 1 to get rid of 24-hour voting sites, drive-thru polling places and efforts to proactively send mail ballot applications to voters — all strategies implemented by then-County Clerk Chris Hollins in 2020 to help Harris County voters access the polls during the early days of the COVID pandemic.

Now, GOP lawmakers are using their majority to target Harris County voters in a number of areas.

“Let me be clear, the MAGA Republicans in charge in Texas have unfortunately been driving the Trump kool-aid of election fraud based on the big lie,” said State Rep. Ron Reynolds. “They are pissed that they spent millions of dollars in Harris County to defeat Judge Lina Hidalgo and lost. Now they want to take away local control and win elections not by receiving the most votes but by placing their thumb on the scales when they don’t agree with the results of the majority of citizens that vote to elect Democrats.”

Two of the biggest targets take aim at the Elections Administrator and gives Texas Gov. Greg Abbott precedent-setting power to reverse elections.

Elections Administrator

Senate Bill 1750 was recently approved by the Texas House Elections. It seeks to abolish the county elections administrator position (currently held by Clifford Tatum) in Harris County and transfer election duties to the county clerk and tax assessor-collector. The Senate passed the bill, written by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Republican, on April 18. It will now go up for debate on the House floor.

Headshot of Clifford Tatum
Clifford Tatum

The bill was originally written to affect all counties with populations of more than 1 million residents, but it was changed after Bettencourt’s office found that only Harris County had continuous problems, said Rep. Briscoe Cain, who presented the House version of the bill — House Bill 3876 — in committee.

“Each election seems to bring a new and bigger election disaster than the last,” said Cain, a Republican. “Harris County leadership has done nothing to remedy this embarrassingly poor quality of operation of the elections department.”

The Texas Election Code allows counties’ election commissions, based on their individual needs, to assign election duties to the county clerk and tax assessor-collector — which are elected positions — or to create an elections department and appoint a nonpartisan elections administrator. More than half of Texas’ 254 counties currently appoint an elections administrator to run their elections.

In last November’s general election, Harris County had to extend voting for an hour after various polling places had malfunctioning voting machines, paper ballot shortages and long waiting periods. More than 20 lawsuits from losing Republican candidates have been filed against the county, citing those problems and seeking a redo of the election. Elections Administrator Clifford Tatum, the county’s second elections administrator, hired only two months before November’s election, could not say early on how many polling locations ran out of paper on Election Day or whether anyone was prevented from voting.

Tatum lacked a sophisticated tracking system that many elections administrators use to manage polling place problems across the county in real time. He has since said the county will be equipped with such a tracking system for the upcoming May 6 municipal election.

Changing the rules for elections

Black people waiting in line and voting
Credit: Getty Images

Senate Bill 1993 gives gives Gov. Abbott “precedent-setting” power to undo election results. The measure would give Abbott’s appointed Secretary of State the authority to order a new election under certain circumstances in counties with at least 2.7 million people. The state would be able to call a new election if 2% or more of the total precincts run out of usable ballots during voting hours, something that happened at several polling places in the last midterm elections. Only Harris County, a Democratic stronghold and the country’s third most populous county, would be affected by this bill as it has 4.7 mil people. S.B. 1993 now goes to the state House for consideration.

That triggered allegations of voter suppression from Senate Democrats who saw the move as simply handing the governor a way to reverse results as Republicans like former President Donald Trump and losing Arizona governor candidate Kari Lake tried to do.

“You want to vest in a political appointee the ability to make a decision as to whether or not an election should be overturned and reheld?” state Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) said.

Harris County, which once skewed Republican, voted nearly 56% Democratic in the last presidential election. Abbott and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz lost the county in recent re-election races.

Under the terms of the law, the secretary of state wouldn’t actually have to prove that any polling places did run out of ballots; they would merely need to have “good cause to believe” that there was a shortage. Additionally, they wouldn’t have to prove that election administration issues affected the outcome of the election.

“This bill provides a remedy for systemic ballot paper denial in Harris County and simply insures there is enough ballot paper for voters,” said State Senator Mayes Middleton.

“This bill is bad for democracy and violates the Texas Constitution’s prohibition on local laws. If it passes, Harris County will sue.”

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee

Senate Democrats in the minority offered pushed back, suggesting Middleton’s measure is hyper-partisan and overkill.

“Instead of making it statewide right now, we are just going to pick on my county, little old Harris County, right? Kind of like all the other election bills that come through here,” said State Senator Borris Miles, a Houston Democrat.

SB 1993 will now move to the Texas House for consideration and Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee says they will take the matter to court.

“This bill is about targeting the largest county in the state, which is led by people of color,” Menefee said.

The Texas Tribune contributed to this report.

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ReShonda TateManaging Editor

I’m a Houstonian (by way of Smackover, Arkansas). My most important job is being a wife to my amazing husband, mother to my three children, and daughter to my loving mother. I am the National Bestselling...