Office would combine voter registration and elections management in one office; Current tax assessor-collector and former county clerk among those who oppose the change
Harris County Commissioners are proceeding with plans for an independent elections administrator’s office to consolidate the voter registration duties of the Harris County tax assessor-collector and the elections management role of the Harris County clerk.
In July, Harris County Commissioners voted 3-2 along party lines with the Democratic majority in favor of establishing a plan to create the new office. Commissioners voted by the same split on Aug. 11—Democrats Rodney Ellis, Adrian Garcia, and Harris County Judge Linda Hidalgo in favor and Republicans Jack Cagle and Steve Radack against—to move forward with the process, which includes hiring a nonpartisan elections administrator.
County Clerk Chris Hollins will remain in charge of the upcoming Nov. 3 general election.
According to the Texas Secretary of State website, about 120 of the state’s 254 counties use an independent administrator to run elections and register voters.
Eight of the state’s 10 largest counties have switched to the model. Travis County has not.
The tax assessor-collector has the herculean task of collecting taxes while the county clerk’s office manages a large volume of court records. Streamlining all county elections functions into one office could boost operational efficiency and reduce voter confusion.
Critics and supporters agree that Harris County, the state’s largest by population, has unique issues that other Texas jurisdictions do not.
Organizations who support the change include the Houston NAACP, Houston Justice, Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation (AFL-CIO), Texas Civil Rights Project, Mi Familia Vota of Texas and LULAC’s District VIII based in Houston. Advocates believe the arrangement will lead to more fair elections by increasing voter registration, protecting voting rights and professionalizing elections functions in a nonpartisan office.
At the Aug. 3 public hearing, Houston NAACP Branch President James Douglas told commissioners the office’s consolidated management of all elections aspects “will increase the number of minority voters.”
Others criticized what they view as a hasty effort to switch to an elections administrator.
Opponents include longtime Third Ward community activist Tomaro Bell; Sunnyside-area civic club president Cynthia Pharms; and Antonio Maldonado, a Harris County Democratic Party precinct chair. Former Harris County District Clerk Chris Daniel, a Republican, told commissioners at the Aug. 3 hearing that the office would take away the power of voters to choose who is responsible for elections while stripping two elected officials and their agencies of constitutional duties. He also predicted a “balloon in cost” and said the current arrangement ensures that no one agency has all the power in controlling elections functions.
Tax Assessor-Collector Ann Harris Bennett and former Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman, both Democrats, oppose the change. In a letter to commissioners, Bennett said she doubted an independent administrator would be an improvement. Trautman, who was elected in 2018, but resigned in May because of health issues, said an independent elections office should be created only after rigorous community engagement.
Hollins, who was appointed to replace Trautman on what he pledged would be an interim basis, supports the independent elections administrator concept.
In Texas, a county elections administrator is a professional leader appointed by an elections commission, according to Harris County Special Assistant County Attorney Douglas Ray.
The qualifications and duties of elections administrators are outlined in the Texas Election Code.
“Presently, there are functions in the county clerk’s office with the administration of elections and the tax assessor-collector’s office, which are voter registration functions, which would be transferred to the election administrator — and that would all be handled just in that one office,” Ray told commissioners during an Aug. 3 public hearing. “By voting to have an election administrator, the commissioner’s court creates an election commission that is made up of the county judge, the tax assessor-collector, the county clerk and the chairs of the two major political parties, the Harris County Republican Party and the Harris County Democratic Party.”
Those five people would choose an elections administrator by a majority vote at a publicly held meeting called by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who would serve as chair of the elections commission.
The elections administrator must be a nonpartisan, professional person who is not a political operative.
“They can’t be an officer in a party. They cannot make political contributions. They cannot endorse any candidate or run for any office while they are holding the position,” Ray said.
The elections administrator must be qualified to register to vote in Texas, which means the person must be a U.S. citizen who has lived in the state for 30 days. There is no requirement that the person is registered to vote in Harris County or resides in Harris County.
The county’s adopted plan includes creating an ad hoc committee of representatives from the offices of the county clerk, county tax assessor-collector, county auditor, county attorney, county budget and the universal services department to execute the transition of all election functions to the office of elections administrator. The county also will hire a consultant to advise on the management structure of the office as well as establish a citizens advisory committee to make recommendations.
The elections administrator will be responsible for hiring “well over 100 employees” who also must be nonpartisan, Ray said.
There is a safety valve if the independent office or the chosen administrator doesn’t work out.
Commissioner’s court has the power to abolish the office. If that happens, the functions shift back to the tax assessor-collector and county clerk. The elections commission can remove or suspend the administrator at any time by an affirmative vote of four members of the five-person commission, according to Ray.
Relic of the past
Hidalgo has said that if a system were being designed today, it would not be bifurcated.
“You will register and turn out more voters of all different races and ethnicities because you have consolidated the operations under a single election administrator,” Dr. Robert Stein, a Rice University political science professor and voting researcher, told commissioners on Aug. 3, adding that unified elections functions “can greatly reduce errors in voter registration.”
Voter registration, separate from elections management is, in part, a relic of a discriminatory past.
Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, the only Black member of the court, noted that voter registration historically coincides with the tax collector because of the legacy of the poll tax that was used to prevent Black Americans, specifically, from exercising their franchise.
“There is no doubt in my mind that Jim Crow and poll tax laws had an institutional effect,” Stein said. “The reason that we have separated this was to discriminate – largely against African Americans in the original Confederacy states. I am somewhat surprised to see the legacy of that effect continue.”
The history is little more than a half-century in the past. The 24th amendment abolished the poll tax as a prerequisite to voting in federal elections in 1964, after it was passed by both houses of Congress and ratified by the required two-thirds of states (Texas finally ratified the amendment in 2009; several states still have not done so). The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the poll tax in all elections in 1966.
Time will tell
Both, the office of the tax assessor-collector and the county clerk, have had recent missteps.
Under Stan Stanart, a two-term Republican elected in 2010 and unseated by Trautman in 2018, the Harris County Clerk’s office struggled to post timely election results. Those election-night delays continued under Trautman, who faced criticism during this year’s March primary for long lines and misallocated voting machines.
Two years ago, Bennett’s office mistakenly placed more than 1,700 voters in suspension and later failed to properly update a voting district’s boundaries.
Time will tell whether the elections administrator will correct these issues.
Once designated, the elections administrator could assume the role as early as Aug. 20 to facilitate the transition and allow the person to observe functions in the county tax assessor-collector and county clerk offices. The election administrator’s office would take over those duties effective Nov. 18.