Harris County Democrats reject opinion that appointment should be rescinded
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has determined that Harris County didn’t follow state law when creating its new Office of Elections Administrator, which he says renders the independent elections office and its administrator illegal and void, but the Democratic majority of the Harris County Commissioners Court rejected that opinion this week.
In a 3-2 vote along party lines on December 1st, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo with Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia moved to approve three staff positions as Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria builds the new office.
“While this distraction goes on, Administrator Longoria needs to continue to do her job,” Hidalgo said.
In July, Harris County Commissioners voted 3-2 with the Democratic majority in favor of establishing a plan to create the new office. Commissioners voted by the same split in August—Democrats Ellis, Garcia and Hidalgo in favor and Republicans Jack Cagle and Steve Radack against—to move forward with the process, which included hiring a nonpartisan elections administrator for the state’s most populous county. The independent elections administrator’s office consolidates the voter registration duties of the tax assessor-collector and the elections management role of the county clerk.
Last week, Paxton sent a letter to County Attorney Vince Ryan alleging the new elections office was created illegally because the county clerk (at the time, appointee Chris Hollins) failed to inform the secretary of state in a timely fashion as required by Texas Election Code. He also wrote that Longoria’s appointment in October was not legal for the same reason.
Missing both reporting milestones means that the office doesn’t exist and Longoria’s hiring is void, Paxton wrote. His letter said the county had to take “corrective action to cure the deficiencies” in 14 days or face “legal remedies.”
Ryan responded to Paxton in writing this week acknowledging that the county had not properly informed the state but that Texas law says the delays don’t change the validity of the actions. Since then, all required documentation regarding the election administration office has been sent to Secretary of State Ruth Hughs.
“I think that the general pronouncement that the Harris County Office of Elections Administrator does not exist and calling Ms. Longoria’s appointment void over administrative technicalities is just another blatant attempt to continue an assault on Texas voters,” Ellis said. “I think part of the fear is: This office will be as successful on registering people in the future, if this court agrees to invest in it, as they were in handling the last election with record turnout and the ease of people participating in the process.”
More than 100 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. Only Travis County has not.
Supporters have said streamlining all county elections functions into one office will boost operational efficiency and reduce voter confusion.
Ellis, the only Black member of the court, has noted the split responsibilities as a relic of Jim Crow. Voter registration historically coincides with the tax collector because of the poll tax, which was used to prevent Black Americans, specifically, from exercising their franchise.
During public comment on Tuesday, MacGregor Park Super Neighborhood Association President Tomaro Bell accused the court of unfairly taking power away from two African American women – Tax Assessor-Collector Ann Harris Bennett, who opposed the creation of the office, and County Clerk Teneshia Hudspeth, who was elected in November to succeed Hollins.
“How the hell do Teneshia Hudspeth and Ann Harris look like Jim Crow to you?” said Bell, also a Black woman. “I don’t think this would have occurred if there were two males in these seats.”
Republicans also have argued that the office, with its appointed leader, is not accountable to voters.
Cagle, a former trial judge, said Paxton’s interpretation of the Texas Election Code is not sinister as described by others.
“When Paxton says we didn’t follow the rules, I don’t think that there is some evil intent,” Cagle said, adding that he agreed with Bell. “I find it interesting that we keep invoking the name of Jim Crow laws … when we are taking authority away from two duly-elected African American females.”
Paxton, who remains under indictment for securities fraud, has faced turmoil since October when seven employee whistleblowers alleged the attorney general criminally abused his office.