Texas Republicans have approved a pair of bills targeting the elections process in Harris County, the state’s largest and home to Houston, with voting rights activists accusing the GOP of plotting a “power grab” in an increasingly Democratic county.
The measures, which passed the Republican-controlled state House and Senate, now head to the desk of GOP Gov. Greg Abbott.
On Sunday, lawmakers passed legislation known as SB 1933 that would authorize the office of the Texas secretary of state – an Abbott appointee – to “order administrative oversight” of a county elections office if, for instance, a complaint is filed or there’s cause to believe there’s a recurring pattern of problems involving election administration or voter registration. The measure would affect any county that has a population of more than 4 million people – Harris County is the only county in the state that meets that criterion.
Last week, the state House passed a measure along party lines that would eliminate the position of elections administrator in a county with a population of more than 3.5 million people – which, again, would only apply to Harris County. Under that bill, known as SB 1750, the elections administrator’s duties would be transferred to the county tax assessor-collector and county clerk. The Harris County elections administrator, a position created in 2020, is appointed by the county’s election commission, which is Democratic-controlled. The county’s tax assessor-collector and clerk are both Democrats. The measure had passed the state Senate earlier this month. If signed, the law would go into effect on September 1.
Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee, a Democrat, said last week that the county would sue the state over the two bills, which he called “clearly unconstitutional.”
“(Our) state’s constitution bars lawmakers from passing laws that target one specific city or county, putting their personal vendettas over what’s best for Texans,” Menefee said in a statement.
While Republicans have long had a stronghold on Texas, Harris County has leaned more Democratic in recent years. President Joe Biden won the county by double digits in 2020. And Democrat Beto O’Rourke won the county in November’s governor’s race, while losing statewide by double digits to Abbott.
Harris County experienced election problems last year that caused the county’s former elections administrator, Isabel Longoria, to resign amid a mail-in ballot counting discrepancy during the March primary. The problems included damaged ballots that delayed the reporting of results and a vote discrepancy that left thousands of ballots out of the unofficial primary results. The county also experienced issues during the general election, paper ballot shortages, machine malfunctions and delays in opening polling places.
“Voters should have confidence in their elections, and when they see Harris County Elections Administrators botch election after election in 2022 that confidence is shaken,” Houston-area state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, who authored both bills, said last month.
Bettencourt has defended his legislation, saying in a statement that SB 1933 would “ensure the failures, or the fiasco of the general election never occurs again with the Texas Secretary of State oversight of the election process, if necessary.”
But James Slattery, an attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project, a legal advocacy group, said the bills would “open the door for the Governor and his allies to manipulate elections in the nation’s third largest county for their own partisan gain.”
“It is the latest power grab by state officials in a Session dominated by efforts to centralize power and gut the right of local communities to govern themselves,” he said in a statement.