A state law abolishing Harris County’s Election Administrators office will go into effect on Sept. 1, splitting the task of running elections for the nation’s third-largest county between two offices less than two months before voting begins in this fall’s municipal elections.
A Texas Supreme Court decision Tuesday to deny Harris County’s request for an emergency order nullifies a Travis County district judge’s ruling that Senate Bill 1750, passed this spring by the Texas Legislature, cannot take effect until a county lawsuit to block the law plays out. The Texas Attorney General’s Office had appealed that ruling to the state Supreme Court within hours, prompting Harris County’s request that the injunction remain in place until a final ruling is made on the law’s constitutionality.
The high court’s ruling means the job of maintaining voter registration rolls and administering elections will return to the county tax assessor-collector and county clerk offices for the Nov. 7 election.
In a statement Tuesday, Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said he was disappointed by the court’s ruling.
“From the start, Republican legislators pushed this law abolishing the Harris County Elections Administrator’s Office to undermine local elections and score political points on the backs of the good people who run them,” Menefee wrote. “By setting the law to go into effect September 1, and not passing a single law to assist in the transition or provide additional funding, Republican legislators are making the job of running this November’s election much more difficult. It was on the Texas Supreme Court to rein in these bad-faith lawmakers. The court failed Harris County residents.”
The Attorney General’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.
The clerk and tax assessor-collector offices previously handled election duties before the Harris County Commissioners Court established the elections administration office in June 2021. The change was made to streamline the administration of elections by moving it into a single office dedicated to the task full-time, Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said.
Despite the sudden new role, County Clerk Teneshia Hudspeth, who will be the Chief Election Official for the county, said she is confident the county can organize well-run elections. Hudspeth in a statement said she plans to assess the county’s current administrative practices, evaluate new voting equipment, then address issues that have previously hampered elections operations.
“As an individual, I have mixed feelings about enacted laws that present unwarranted complications to election administrators and voters alike,” Hudspeth wrote. “Still, whether I agree with a law or not, I have taken an oath to abide by the law as an elected official. My duty as Chief Election Official is to conduct elections with a non-partisan spirit, provide all voters with the information, materials, and assistance needed to vote, and work to strengthen voters’ confidence in our election process.”
More than half of Texas’ 254 counties have appointed elections administrators.
Harris County’s lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of SB 1750 still will be heard by the Supreme Court. Oral arguments are scheduled for Nov. 28.
Menefee argues the legislature is barred under the Texas Constitution from writing laws that single out one county.
The law is written to apply to “a county with a population of more than 3.5 million.” Harris is the only county in Texas with such a population.
In her ruling last week, 250th State District Judge Karin Crump called the law unconstitutional because it specifically targets Harris County and said it will create inefficiencies and disorganization in the county government if it is allowed to go into effect.
“Transferring responsibility for that election just weeks before voting starts will disrupt existing processes and risk the efficient administration of the election,” Crump wrote.
In a statement last week, the Attorney General’s Office statement last week said Harris County’s large population gives the legislature a reason for SB 1750 because of its “outsized statewide impact on elections.”
Harris County officials last week said the county was preparing for all outcomes and voters should expect the November election to run smoothly.
Court filings by the county, however, paint a more dire picture, warning of “severe, last-minute disruption” to the election if the Elections Administrator’s Office is abolished.
The office is the sole entity in the county preparing for the elections and has been doing so since January, according to the county’s request for emergency relief. The office already is designing the ballots for the city of Houston and dozens of other political subdivisions, as well as inspecting voting machines and hiring poll workers, according to the filing.
“Shifting these critical functions to unprepared officials at this juncture will severely disrupt election preparations,” the county’s petition reads.
The Harris County Republican Party intervened in the case last week supporting the implementation of SB 1750. In a statement Tuesday, Chair Cindy Siegel celebrated the ruling and accused Harris County of undermining the democratic process by suing to block the law.
“The Harris County Republican Party was able to help set the record straight with our intervention, which outlined the countless failures of previous Harris County Elections Administrators,” Siegel wrote. “I’m thankful the court was not seduced by the Harris County government’s feeble, irrelevant, and emotional argument but instead looked at the facts of the case.”
Harris County has been the target of Republicans in the state legislature for years following a string of election problems.
Tatum is the county’s second elections administrator. His predecessor, Isabel Longoria, resigned the post last July after several high-profile problems occurred during the March 2022 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.
Harris County regularly is one of the last counties in the state to report results on election night, due in part to the sheer size of the county and number of ballots counted.
Tatum 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 shortages were much more widespread, intentional and targeted at Republican areas of the county.
A map purporting to show that was ruled inadmissible as evidence by a judge earlier this month in a trial in which a losing Republican judicial candidate is seeking to have her November 2022 race result overturned, despite the same map being used by legislators as an argument in favor of SB 1750’s passage. Final arguments in that case concluded Aug. 10.