Harris County sees first election under new management

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Saturday saw a wave of runoff elections in Harris County, including in Houston where Tarsha Jackson coasted to victory to end the year-long question as to who would be the city’s newest council member. 

The county’s runoff elections were also the first under the management of the newly created elections administrator’s office. 

This year, Harris County began the process of consolidating the two offices that have historically handled elections — the county clerk and the tax assessor-collector’s office — under one roof.

Isabel Longoria, a special advisor on voting rights to the county clerk, was sworn in to lead the new office last month.

“Fundamentally the office is shifting from being reactive to proactive,” Longoria told the Signal. “Under the tax office and county clerk offices, since elections and voter registration were just one part of what they did, it was always kind of like, ‘oh shit elections are coming, now what’ or ‘oh shit, we’ve got to register voters, now what’ — now we have the capacity to say that this is our focus year-round.”

Harris County voters are already benefiting from some new practices, some they can see and some they can’t. Election results in the county are now updating every thirty minutes, and behind the scenes, election officials are working more closely together. For example, Longoria said the heads of both the voter registration and elections department were in the same room at NRG on election day.

“When we were sitting at NRG all together, at one point there was a voter who had a complicated voter registration question — and there was the head of voter registration, no kicking it up, no anything else,” Longoria said.

Longoria said the creation of the office she now leads is still happening in phases. The county clerk and tax office have all maintained their staff and have yet to switch physical office locations. For now, the priority has been running elections in the county without any interruptions to voters. 

“We didn’t even change logos and stuff on some of the papers,” Longoria joked. 

Starting next year, the new office plans to really begin to shake things up. Much of that responsibility will fall to Benjamin Chou, director of innovation at the merging county clerk’s and elections administrator’s office. 

The idea of drive-thru voting locations, which were present during the November general election and Saturday’s runoff election, came from Chou’s office. He said the county plans to keep drive-thru voting moving forward and has other ideas in the works, including better data visualization for election results such as neighborhood breakdown of how candidates performed, and automatically mailing out absentee ballots application to voters who are over the age of 65. The county also hopes to have 24-hour voting sites for all countywide primaries and elections, something Longoria has pushed for aggressively.

“The people of Harris County should look forward to seeing a lot more activity in terms of voter registration and improving voter access,” Chou said. 

Earlier this month, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sent a letter to Harris County informing them that Longoria’s newly created office did not exist. Paxton argued that the county violated Texas election code by creating the office without the proper timing and without appropriately informing the Texas Secretary of State. He gave the county two weeks to take “corrective action” before his office would intervene. 

Harris County Commissioners Court was unmoved by the threat, the county attorney replied to Paxton detailing the paperwork, and nothing has come of it since. And business as usual has continued at the elections administrator’s office, Longoria said.

“I think he just wanted to make sure we filed our paperwork, and we did,” Longoria said. “That’s it. It’s one of those things where… yeah… nothing happened.” 

Photo: David Lee / The Texas Signal

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