Democratic officials are filing a lawsuit against the State of Texas over new legislation which targets Harris County elections.
“Republican legislators are again targeting Harris County, singling us out to score cheap political points,” said County Attorney Christian Menefee. “This sets a dangerous precedent, and we all know the legislators in Austin won’t stop here — this will lead to more attempts to remove local officials in the state’s most diverse counties. We’re suing the state of Texas to protect Harris County residents, to protect our public officials, and to stop the state from targeting us. The Texas Constitution is clear. The legislator can’t pass laws that target one specific city or one specific county. And that constitutional ban makes a whole lot of sense.”
Targeting Harris County
At issue are two bills:
Senate Bill 1750 would eliminate the Harris County elections administrator position — a nonpartisan position appointed by local elected officials — and return all election duties to the county clerk and tax assessor-collector.
And Senate Bill 1933 — which was amended on the House floor to impact only Harris County — gives the Texas secretary of state oversight of local elections, the authority to investigate election “irregularities” after complaints are filed and the authority to order the removal of a county election official if “a recurring pattern of problems” isn’t resolved.
The set of bills aimed at the state’s most populous county were among about a dozen bills authored by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who has said Harris County election problems in the past year were the “genesis” of the proposals.
“The passage of SB 1750 is a victory for all Harris County voters. Accountability is important, and this bill returns the responsibility of running our elections back to duly elected officials, not a partisan appointee,” the Harris County GOP said in a statement.
“This is going to undue years of work that the County has taken to build up that office and set up that workforce. It’s going to confuse things for county employees and it’s going to throw our process into chaos just a few months before a major election,” Menefee said.
“If signed by the governor, all of these bills would become effective by Sept. 1 of this year, leaving roughly two months for the county to make the necessary adjustment before this year’s mayoral election,” added mayor Sylvester Turner. “The changes being forced on the county will have a direct impact on this year’s mayoral election. I’m term-limited, but I want to make sure voters don’t have any problems casting their ballots in the upcoming election.”
Where it started
In July 2020, the Harris County Commissioners Court voted 3 to 2 along partisan lines to create a new office of the county administrator. The move drew bipartisan opposition in the county, where two Black Democratic women, Taneshia Hudspeth and Ann Harris Bennett, had been elected to the offices of tax assessor-collector & voter registrar and county clerk, respectively.
In August 2022, the county hired former Washington D.C. Executive Director of Elections Clifford Tatum, a Black man. Delayed openings, malfunctioning equipment, and a ballot paper shortage at multiple locations during the 2022 general election in Harris County have drawn lawsuits from civil rights groups and the county’s local Republican Party, a still-pending criminal investigation, and multiple election contests.
Menefee said it shouldn’t be lost on voters that all three of the people being targeted are Black.
“We live in a big state with a lot of people … yet these bills target three Black elected officials in Harris County. This is exactly why the Republican Party hasn’t been able to win the hearts and minds of Black people in this country. They shake your hand with one hand and they stab you in the back with the other. Enough is Enough.”
If the bill becomes law and survives potential legal challenges, current administrator Clifford Tatum would have until Sept. 1, 2023 to hand off his duties to the county clerk and tax assessor-collector. As the bills head to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk, Menefee says they are poised and ready to move.
“We’re going to approach this on parallel tracks. We plan to file our lawsuit, uh, in short order once the governor signs these laws into effect. At the same time, we’re going to start the process of talking about what that transition looks like and make sure that we’re doing everything we can to ensure that our Harris County Clerk Tanisha Hudspeth is properly empowered to run that election. I want to be clear: this fight is not over. We cannot and will not allow the state to illegally target Harris County.”
What leaders are saying
The attacks on the city of Houston and Harris County are wrong, they’re undemocratic, and will certainly have a chilling effect on the ability as a community to do what is in the best interest of the people in our region and will limit our ability to make local decisions.Mayor Sylvester Turner
We won’t allow Austin extremists to undermine our Democracy.County Commissioner Rodney Ellis
SB1933 would give effective control of Harris County elections to a single state Republican official. She’d have full control and could fire our non-partisan Elections Administrator. The bill changed today to apply only to Harris County and now heads back to the Senate.”County Judge Lina Hidalgo
Harris County is the largest Democratic county in the state. It’s no coincidence Republicans are trying to take over its elections. Republicans are trying to empower the state to take over local elections in Harris County — the largest, most diverse county in the state. It’s the same old story. When Republicans can’t win, they just change the rules.State Rep. Jarvis Johnson