The state-mandated transfer of 170 Harris County employees from the Elections Administrator’s Office to the county clerk and the tax assessor-collector’s offices this week will not significantly impede the administration of the Nov. 7 election, county officials said Tuesday.
The clerk’s office will absorb 131 employees and the tax office will receive 39. Neither will hire current Elections Administrator Clifford Tatum, whose post will be abolished on Friday when Senate Bill 1750 takes effect, County Clerk Teneshia Hudspeth and County Tax Office Chief Deputy Wendy Caesar said.
“(Voters) should feel just as confident as any other election,” Hudspeth said. “We’re working around the clock to make sure from the time you step out of your car into that polling place, you’re able to exercise your right to vote.”
The discussion coincided with Commissioners Court’s formal vote to transfer budgets, equipment and the 170 positions from the Elections Administrator’s Office ahead of the law taking effect Friday.
The current budgets for the clerk and tax offices will not be affected by the influx of employees because the separate budgets that fund the Elections Administrator’s Office will be divided between the two offices, Hudspeth said.
The Elections Administrator’s Office declined to comment on Tatum’s employment.
Tuesday’s comments were the first time county officials have shared details of how they would implement the new state law less than two months before early voting begins Oct. 23.
Gov. Greg Abbott signed the law in June. The Harris County Attorney’s Office earlier this month sued to block it from taking effect, arguing it violates the Texas Constitution because it targets one specific county.
In court filings, the county also argued the change this close to the election “will severely disrupt election preparations.”
A Travis County state district judge sided with the county, blocking the law until it could make its way through the state courts system. The Texas Attorney General quickly appealed that ruling directly to the Texas Supreme Court, and the court last week ruled the law could take effect Friday before the district court makes a final ruling.
Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Ann Harris Bennett and Hudspeth both issued statements following last week’s Supreme Court decision assuring voters they would work to make sure elections run smoothly.
The law reverts county elections operations to its former state before the Commissioners Court created the Elections Administrator’s Office in 2021.
Both offices will have more employees and larger budgets than they did before the 2021 transition, Hudspeth and Caesar said.
“In the next few weeks, we will continue the election plan in place to avoid disruption or delays in the ongoing work related to the conduct of the Nov. 7, 2023 election,” Hudspeth said.
The county clerk’s office had fewer than 100 employees dedicated to elections administration before the 2021 transition, Hudspeth said. The tax office also will gain several positions that did not exist in 2021, Caesar said.
The increase in the number of employees is welcome and was needed at the clerk’s office before the 2021 transition, Hudspeth said.
“We’re doing things in the opposite direction, but it’s different than it was three years ago because it’s now coming back to two elected officials who do many other operations,” Hudspeth said. “We’re looking at what that looks like for our teams and our organization as a whole, not impeding on the services we do each and every day, but also to make sure this division we’re inheriting is successful, as well.”
Tatum is the county’s second elections administrator. His predecessor, Isabel Longoria, resigned the post in July 2022 after several high-profile problems occurred during the March primaries, including a delayed election night vote count and the omission of 10,000 ballots during preliminary tallies. Those ballots were included in the final count.
Before being hired by the county, Tatum had served as general counsel for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission from 2015 to 2019, and was the former executive director of the District of Columbia Board of Elections.
He and the county have faced intense criticism from local and state Republicans over last November’s election, in which around 20 voting locations ran out of ballot paper. Republicans claim the paper shortage was more widespread, intentional and targeted at Republican areas of the county, although alleged evidence of that recently was ruled inadmissible in court during the first of several lawsuits challenging the election results.
In response to the issues with paper ballots, Tatum recommended the county implement a system to track issues reported by poll workers and provide additional tech support and assistance for workers in the field.
Those recommendations already have been implemented by the administrator’s office and will be in place for November, Hudspeth said.
The clerk and the tax office also are considering additional staff ahead of presidential elections in 2024, as well as newer software to make sure things run smoothly, Hudspeth and Caesar said.
“We are working very closely to make sure nothing falls through the cracks,” Caesar said. “We want to make sure we have a successful election come November.”
The training of election judges and clerks is underway and will not be interrupted by the staffing transition, Hudspeth said.
Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis called SB 1750 part of “a coordinated attack from state leaders who are intent on subverting our elections because they fear our diverse and powerful electorate. Harris County voters can trust that we’re doing everything in our power to protect their right to vote in fair and free elections this November and beyond.”
The last day to register to vote is Oct. 10. Early voting begins Oct. 23 for the Nov. 7 election.