2 GOP legislators want to let state replace Harris County elections administrators

ByNatalia Contreras, The Texas Tribune
Monday, February 27, 2023
State could possibly replace Harris County elections administrators
The secretary of state's office could possibly audit Harris County election administrators if a new Texas bill supported by GOP legislators is passed.

HARRIS COUNTY, Texas -- House and Senate bills filed by Republican lawmakers in response to Harris County's mismanagement of its recent elections could give the Texas secretary of state the authority to step in, suspend county election administrators when a complaint is filed, and appoint a replacement administrator.

Election administration experts told Votebeat the legislation was an overreaction to the desire to hold Harris County accountable for years of election mismanagement and would disrupt the state's ability to help county election offices improve and address systemic problems.

If passed, the secretary of state's office would change from being a guide and resource for election workers to being an auditor that can investigate and fire them. Some election officials are concerned this change could prevent local election workers from asking questions or seeking help from the office for fear of being reprimanded.

READ MORE: Harris County officials consider paying staff to assist with elections

"Currently, we work hand-in-hand. (The secretary of state's staff) are our No. 1 resource, and that benefits all voters," Jennifer Doinoff, Hays County elections administrator, said. "Putting them in the position of oversight would definitely change the dynamic."

Authored by state Rep. Tom Oliverson and state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, both Harris County Republicans, the bills are among several already filed this legislative session in reaction to the long lines, late openings and reports of shortages of ballot paper on Election Day in Harris County. More than 20 lawsuits from losing Republican candidates have also been filed against the county, citing those problems and seeking a redo of the election. Harris County Elections Administrator Cliff Tatum did not respond to Votebeat's request for his comment about the legislation.

House Bill 2020 and Senate Bill 823 would allow the secretary of state's office to take action in a county if a complaint is filed by one of several officials and organizations involved in elections, and if there's "good cause to believe that a recurring pattern of problems with election administration exists."

The bills list five causes for the suspension of an elections administrator:

  • Malfunction of voting equipment
  • Unfair distribution of election supplies
  • Errors in tabulation of results
  • Delays in reporting election returns
  • Discovery of voted ballots after the polls close

READ MORE: Lt. Gov. Patrick calls for new election in Harris Co., alleging some voting places didn't have paper

Currently, any problems that arise in an election or with an elections administrator are handled by the county's election commission. Those commissions are made up of the county judge, the tax assessor-collector, the county clerk and the chairs of local political parties. The commission's oversight powers allow it to appoint, terminate or accept the resignation of the county's election administrator.

Some Texas voting rights groups worry the Legislature will use the problems in Harris and those lawsuits as "an excuse" to advance bills such as these. The League of Women Voters of Texas in a statement last week said such legislation, if passed, "is fraught for potential abuse, infringes on the rights of county governments to select their own elections administrator, and demeans the meaning of local governance."

Slightly more than half of Texas counties appoint nonpartisan election administrators to run their elections. This legislation would apply only in those counties and not in the 122 that elect county clerks or tax assessors tasked with running elections and handling voter registration.

"We are subject to the authorities of those that appointed us," Remi Garza, Cameron County elections administrator and the Texas Association of Elections Administrators legislative committee co-chair, said. "It does cause concern that somebody from outside that jurisdiction would be able to usurp the authority of the elections commission in dealing with their elections administrator."

Each county in Texas runs its elections differently, depending on its size and resources. Rather than demanding accountability from under-resourced administrators, experts say legislators should instead proactively ask county election officials whether they have the resources, structures, and personnel they need to get the job done.

"I'm not saying election administrators are perfect and should never be reviewed. But we're not seeing the kind of higher-level discussions being led primarily by experts, meaning the election officials, the people that are actually running elections," said David Becker, founder of the Center for Election Innovation & Research.

No bills have been filed this legislative session that would help fund county election departments' infrastructure. In his State of the State speech, Gov. Greg Abbott did not mention elections, funding for them, or expanding voter access - and neither did Texas Democratic lawmakers in their response. Although there is no evidence of widespread fraud, one of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's priority bills would raise the penalty of illegal voting to a felony.

"You just can't wait for these problems to reoccur. If the locals won't take action, it's imperative that the state does," Bettencourt said, speaking about Harris County's mismanagement of elections in the past year.

READ MORE: Fiery elections debate continues in Harris County as leaders wait on reports into what went wrong

Election administrators' concerns

The secretary of state's elections division receives several hundred complaints per year about all kinds of voting concerns. Those complaints are reviewed by the division's attorneys, and if they determine there is a clear violation of the Election Code with a criminal penalty, then the office refers the complaint to the attorney general or a local district attorney to investigate.

The majority of the complaints the office receives, however, do not warrant investigations and don't get referred. The office does not have the authority to enforce laws or the resources to investigate complaints.

The secretary of state's office declined to comment on how much additional funding and staff the office would need to comply with the measure. The office's spokesperson, Sam Taylor, told Votebeat the elections division will answer questions if the bill moves forward and is discussed in committee.

The secretary of state helps election workers conduct elections and interpret election laws. The office also provides advice and training for election workers and answers questions for the public. Both county clerks and election administrators across the state rely heavily on the secretary of state's elections division for guidance. Some election officials are concerned the measure, if passed, could alienate election officials seeking help or answers.

Doinoff, the Hays County elections administrator, said she doesn't hesitate to pick up the phone to call the secretary of state's office when she hears from voters who have complaints or questions that she doesn't know the answers to.

"I do that knowing that they're going to give me the right answer, and then I can move forward and make sure I'm doing things correctly in the county," Doinoff said. "But I think if (the secretary of state's staff) were in a position of being able to determine if an election official was going to be suspended or fired, then maybe election officials wouldn't make that call in the first place, and ultimately that impacts the county and the voters."

It's still unclear exactly how the process would work for fielding complaints and suspending and appointing election administrators and whether local election officials would be able to respond or be given a chance to resolve the problems raised in the complaints.

That lack of detail concerns some election officials.

"When anybody's job is subject to termination or suspension is concerning. But especially when you aren't fully briefed on what the due process is going to be," Garza, the Cameron County elections administrator, said.

How similar policies fared elsewhere

Other states that have given state officials control over local election administration include Georgia, Arkansas, Colorado and Florida.

Most recently, Georgia came close to replacing the elections director and taking over operations in the state's most populous county.

In 2020, Fulton County was criticized after several polling locations during the June primary had hourslong lines, delaying election results. Although the November presidential election ran without major problems, the county was at the center of former President Donald Trump's lies about the outcome of the election.

SEE ALSO: Harris County denies Mattress Mack's claims that admin lacks transparency regarding 2022 election

In 2021, Georgia Republican lawmakers passed the sweeping voting bill SB 202 with a provision that allows the State Board of Elections to investigate and take over a county's elections operations and remove county election officials. Lawmakers then requested such an investigation be done in Fulton.

Earlier this month, the State Board of Elections received the findings. A report says that although there were administrative and procedural problems in the county, it has made improvements in its recent elections, implemented new procedures and acquired new staff. Members of a panel that conducted the review told the State Board of Elections that "replacing the (election officials) would not be helpful and would, in fact, hinder the ongoing improvements in Fulton County elections."

The review and investigation of the county was the first of its kind and led by three volunteers: one attorney and two local election officials. Several hundred other volunteers also contributed to the review, which took a year and a half to complete.

During a public meeting, the review panel members told the board and state lawmakers that such reviews would not be feasible in the future without additional funding and resources from the Legislature. The review panel members also told the board that such a process should be done periodically instead of just once or only when problems arise.

"Such an effort would keep counties up to speed with best practices, the latest technologies and apply metrics for performance assessment," review panel member Stephen Day said during the public meeting earlier this month. "It is better to be a partner than an adversary. Better to improve systems before dysfunction, rather than trying to fix them after the fact."

Natalia Contreras covers election administration and voting access for Votebeat in partnership with The Texas Tribune. Contact Natalia at ncontreras@votebeat.org.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans - and engages with them - about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

WATCH: Harris Co. election issues caused by short staffing, malfunctioning machines, paper jams, Astros win

While the report paints a picture of short staffing and a lack of training and supplies, one county leader insists the process was fair and "free of malfeasance or interference."