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News / Politics

Tussle in Texas over how elections are run could spread to other states

By Matt Vasilogambros, Stateline.org
Published: June 11, 2023, 6:00am

A move by Texas Republicans to abolish the position of Harris County elections administrator and hand new oversight powers to the governor-appointed secretary of state could provide a blueprint for GOP leaders in other states who want to tilt elections in their favor, Democratic lawmakers and independent election experts say.

Republican lawmakers acted last month after arguing that Harris County — a Democratic stronghold that includes Houston and is the state’s largest and one of its most diverse counties — botched last year’s midterm election. Some precincts did not provide enough paper ballots or failed to open polling places on time, though the effects are unclear. Republicans claim the mistakes disenfranchised some voters.

One of the bills the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature approved would eliminate the job of county election administrator, who is appointed by a five-member commission that includes the county judge, the tax assessor, the county clerk and the chairs of the Harris County Republican and Democratic parties. Election administration duties would revert to two elected officials, the county clerk and the tax assessor-collector, who performed them before 2020.

The second bill would allow the secretary of state to take over election administration if there are persistent voting irregularities. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is expected to sign both bills into law.

“Now voters in Harris County can be assured that the officials running their elections are elected and accountable to the public,” state Rep. Paul Bettencourt, the Republican author of the legislation, said in a statement. Bettencourt did not respond to an interview request in time for publication.

Democrats aren’t buying it.

Democratic state Rep. Jarvis Johnson, who represents part of Harris County, said it is “disingenuous” for Republicans to highlight problems in one community’s elections while ignoring similar issues in other parts of the state.

“It’s an egregious, disgusting, despicable act,” said Johnson. Harris County, with 4.8 million residents, is the third-largest county in the United States. “It’s a power grab on behalf of Republicans to try to take over elections and certainly steer elections their way.”

Some nonpartisan election experts express similar concerns. David Levine, a senior elections integrity fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a nonpartisan initiative that aims to bolster democratic institutions, said Texas Republicans “exploited” the administrative mistakes in Harris County — and that others around the country might try to emulate them.

“Efforts that target election workers make it harder for them to do their jobs,” said Levine, a former elections director in Ada County, Idaho. “Bad-faith actors, if they think there is a political benefit to enacting a law, will take a long look at Harris County.”

Harris County officials say the bills are the latest in a series of legislative attacks on their election procedures. After the 2020 presidential election, the legislature banned Harris County from sending unrequested absentee ballot applications to voters or utilizing drive-through voting.

Texas lawmakers also approved legislation this session to increase the penalties for voting illegally and moved the state toward leaving the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), an interstate agreement aimed at maintaining accurate voter rolls.

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee, a Democrat, said the county plans on suing the state over the new measures, calling them “shameful” and predicting that they will be replicated by Republicans throughout his and other states.

“This is about targeting the most diverse counties in the state and their diverse leaders,” he said. “Session after session, they have attempted to pass laws to stop people who look a certain way, think a certain way, from voting.”

He added: “We won’t be messed with.”

In an email to Stateline, Harris County Election Administrator Clifford Tatum said he worried that the elimination of his position might harm the voting process in this November’s Houston mayoral election, but that he will abide by the law. He added there “has never been a flawless countywide election in Harris County, no matter which office or party has conducted the election.”

But Cindy Siegel, chair of the Harris County Republican Party, said the legislation was “very necessary” after years of mistakes with local election administration and a refusal by local officials to make systemic changes.

These measures move power from an unelected official to two elected officials, giving voters more of a choice in how their elections are run, she said.

“How is that a power play?” she said in an interview with Stateline. “In a perfect world, we wouldn’t want to have the state come in with legislation, but the reality is that the county hasn’t addressed it. So, there’s been no recourse for voters, for candidates, for us as a party to correct these problems.”

Texas isn’t the only state where Republican-led legislatures are exerting pressure on local election officials in left-leaning cities.

During this year’s legislative session, Republican lawmakers in Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Florida, Georgia and Montana have approved measures that restrict election administration, including prohibiting nonprofits from donating to local election offices, tightening the time local election officials get to count votes and limiting local governments’ ability to create new voting ordinances.

As the 2024 presidential election approaches, these measures risk muddying the election process, said Daniel Griffith, senior director of policy at Secure Democracy USA, a nonpartisan nonprofit that focuses on improving election systems.

“Those folks who are pushing for these kinds of reforms may not have a complete understanding of how that process works,” he said. “Based upon these unfounded theories, they’re really trying to do things that are counterproductive to being able to report results quickly and accurately.”

If Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs hadn’t vetoed them, Republican-backed bills in Arizona would have given political parties more powers to observe the signature-verification process when counting ballots, along with setting up livestreaming of that process. The Republican-controlled legislature there also passed measures that would have made more voter information and ballot images public.

Democratic state Rep. Athena Salman said she has no doubt that if Arizona had a Republican governor, the measures would have become law, further eroding independent, local election administration.

Salman has been a vocal critic of her Republican colleagues’ many probes of the 2020 presidential election and subsequent legal challenges from failed 2022 Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake. Those measures that failed to become law dived “deeper, deeper, deeper into the Big Lie and conspiracy theories,” she said.

“It’s relentless,” she said. “These attacks are very much to serve the purpose of undermining public confidence in our election system so they can bring legislation that has the effect of denigrating the election process and make it harder to vote.”

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