Harris County joins most of Texas in creating a new office to run elections

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On Tuesday, Harris County Commissioners Court voted to create a new office to oversee election-related matters in the county after the November 2020 general election.

Historically, Harris County has relied on the county clerk and the tax assessor-collector’s office for election-related duties. Those responsibilities will be transferred to the newly created office of the Harris County Election Administrator which will begin operating on Nov. 18, 2020, after budgeting issues are sorted and input from the community is heard.

The idea gained steam in May after Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman resigned due to health concerns. Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis proposed to the idea at the time, but no action was taken until now.

Before Tuesday’s vote, Harris and Travis were the only two major metro counties in Texas that had yet to adopt the new model of election governance. 

Ellis, who presented the idea again on Tuesday, argued that the new office will be more efficient at running elections and said it would do away with the dark Jim Crow history that saw county clerks and tax collectors manage elections because of defunct racist poll taxes. 

Ellis said with no fault of current officials, voters in the county have been wrongly suspended from voter roles, voting locations have faced long lines, and employees at the county clerk’s office have been stretched thin because they have to focus on both electoral and non-electoral tasks. He said if the changes aren’t satisfactory, commissioners court could reverse the decision with another vote.

Under the current system, the county clerk runs elections while the county tax office manages voter registration. Those offices will still be elected positions and will not be eliminated. Rather, their election-related duties will be transferred to the newly created Harris County Election Administrator.

Ellis also cited slow growth in voter registration numbers as a reason for the creation of the new office. He said Harris County voter registration grew by only 2 percent between 2016 and 2020 despite a 4 percent increase in the county’s eligible voting-age population.

“A neutral non-partisan administrator will increase election integrity [and] increase voter trust in the process,” Ellis said, explaining how a single office will allow employees to more efficiently focus and coordinate on election-related duties.

Those arguments were mirrored by legal and policy staffers with the Texas ACLU and Texas Civil Rights Project who phoned in to the meeting to support the measure. 

Commissioners heard from multiple local precinct chairs in support and against the creation of the election administration office. Some, including precinct chairs and members from both parties, cited concerns with making changes during a major election year and amid a pandemic that could tighten the county’s budget. One individual, who previously worked as a county judge, said it was ill-advised to vote on the change without input from county judges who could not testify because they were busy working polls in primary election runoffs as the commissioners court meeting took place on Tuesday.

Most of those opposed to the measure cited concerns with the lack of accountability that would come with the new office. Both the county clerk and tax collector are elected positions and are ultimately responsible to voters for their performance, they argued.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Ellis stressed that the measure and timeline for the creation, design, and budgeting of the new office would not interfere with the upcoming presidential election.

The measure to create the office — more of a process than a single motion — will also include a hearing to hear input from members of the community.

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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