The Texas Supreme Court will decide whether Clifford Tatum keeps his job after the attorney general’s office appealed a judge’s order blocking a new state law to abolish Harris County’s elections administrator post.
Travis County’s 250th State District Judge Karin Crump issued a temporary injunction Tuesday morning to stop Senate Bill 1750 from taking effect Sept. 1, a ruling that Harris County officials celebrated during a news conference.
“This is an important win for local officials across the state, for Harris County government and for the fight to rein in unconstitutional lawmaking by misguided legislators,” said Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee.
“At the end of the day, we know that this is not about making elections better for the Republican Party,” Menefee said. “It’s about undermining confidence in our elections and it’s about them trying to settle scores because they lost county wide elections.”
Within hours, the attorney general’s office announced it had appealed the case directly to the state Supreme Court, staying Crump’s ruling while justices consider the case.
“An Austin judge’s ruling attempted to block the operation of SB 1750, a law passed to ensure that elections in the state’s largest counties are properly managed by individuals who are accountable to the voters, not by unaccountable bureaucrats,” the office wrote in a statement. “This filing stays the trial court’s ruling pending a decision by the Texas Supreme Court …. SB 1750 is still scheduled to take effect September 1.”
A spokesperson for Menefee’s office said the county attorney will seek emergency action to keep Crump’s temporary injunction in place while the high court considers the appeal.
The state law, signed by Gov. Greg Abbott in June, eliminates the county’s election administrator position and returns the job of maintaining voter registration rolls and administering elections to the county tax assessor-collector and county clerk offices. The two 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.
More than half of Texas’ 254 counties have appointed elections administrators.
Menefee argued 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 its statement, the attorney general’s office said Harris County’s status as the most populous in the state gives it an outsized impact on statewide elections when it experiences issues on Election Day.
“SB 1750 was signed into law this year after Harris County experienced multiple problems administering its elections, an issue that puts the integrity of Texas elections at risk and can undermine public trust in the political system by endangering the critical guarantee that every vote will be fairly counted,” the statement read.
SB 1750 was authored by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who previously had served as Harris County’s tax assessor-collector.
During legislative hearings, Bettencourt insisted the bill was prompted by performance not politics, saying Harris County’s elections were better run under the county clerk and tax assessor-collector offices than the appointed administrator.
Ellis and Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said Tuesday that if the case reaches the Supreme Court, the county is unlikely to get a fair shake because five of the court’s nine justices were appointed by Abbott.
“Although the state may ultimately prevail based on false pretenses, Harris County will not be deterred by the state of Texas,” Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said. “We will put on the best election possible no matter what curveballs are being thrown at us.”
Emily Eby French, a voting rights attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said the state Supreme Court has become so politicized Harris County is unlikely to prevail.
“The Texas Supreme Court will smack down anything they don’t agree with politically or Governor Greg Abbott doesn’t agree with,” Eby French said.
Tatum is the county’s second election 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 for years has been 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 come under 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, and were intentionally targeted at Republican areas of the county.
A map purporting to show that was ruled inadmissible as evidence by a judge last week in a trial in which a losing Republican judicial candidate is seeking to have her November 2022 race result overturned. Final arguments in that case concluded last week.
Another 20 Republican candidates have filed similar lawsuits to overturn their election losses, claiming the true results of their races were unknowable because some voters were turned away from polls that had run out of ballot paper.
The county uses a county-wide voting system, allowing voters to cast their ballots at any of 782 locations.
One of those candidates, Dan Spjut, who lost his race by more than 24,000 votes, dropped his challenge last week.
Menefee accused the state government and Republican candidates who have brought lawsuits of attempting to throw elections in Harris County into a “state of disarray” heading to city elections this November.
“Each and every person in Harris County who intends to vote this November, I encourage you to do so,” Menefee said. “You can expect that Harris County will have its eyes on the ball, and the experience will be similar for you regardless of whether our election is being run by an elections administrator or a county clerk.”