Op-Ed: What is an Elections Administrator and why does Harris County need one now?

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On Monday, August 3, Harris County Commissioners Court will hold a public comment hearing to debate a proposed change to how elections and voter registration duties are managed in Harris County. The change would consolidate all aspects of elections, including registration and voting, from the current offices of county clerk (who manages elections and polling places) and the tax assessor (who handles voter registration) into a newly created Election Administrator Office. 

This change would not only be an efficient, smart move, but it is a long overdue opportunity to make our elections as fair and accessible as possible.

In a recent joint op-ed published in the Houston Chronicle, longtime Harris County Democrat leaders Commissioner Rodney Ellis and Congressman Al Green argued effectively that continuing with the split offices, one managing elections and another managing voter registration, is not just inefficient, but it is a relic from a racist era in our country’s history, when a “poll tax” was used to disenfranchise African-Americans. 

Commissioner Ellis and Rep. Green also reminded us of the shameful, historic reason behind the  tax assessor managing voter registration. Designed and implemented during the Jim Crow-era, the “poll tax” was used to limit poor people (particularly African-Americans) from accessing the ballot. Now, in an era when we are finally taking down Confederate statues, we should also eliminate the system where the tax assessor oversees voter registration.

At commissioners court, when the proposal was initially discussed, Commissioner Garcia mentioned that one office dedicated to voter registration and election management could help increase registration and turnout in the Latino community. An increase in participation by Latino voters could be a game-changer for progressives in Texas, potentially speeding up the process of turning the Lone Star State blue.  

And it is efficient. The creation of a centralized Elections Administrator Office would allow us to utilize state-of-the-art technology and maintain a full staff dedicated to overseeing all aspects of our elections. Of Texas counties with more than 117,000 residents (39 counties), only 7 still use the split Clerk/Tax Assessor system. With a population greater than around half the states in the country, managing elections and voter registration in Harris County is a gargantuan task that deserves an office fully devoted to making voting as easy and accessible as possible. 

By having an unelected office administer elections, we can remove any undue influence over our elections. When then-Secretary of State of Georgia Brian Kemp was a candidate for governor, many of us were aghast that someone could manage an election while concurrently being a candidate for the highest office in the state — a clear conflict of interest. With the county clerk and tax assessor, both elected positions, overseeing elections while they are also on the ballot, it’s no different than the problems many of us raised about Georgia’s 2018 contest.

Finally, it’s a given that the Texas GOP is funded by a nearly-endless supply of cash from the far-right, including Empower Texans, Dr. Steven Hotze, and others. We also know the Texas Republican Party has shown it will do anything to suppress voter access. It’s not unthinkable that the Texas GOP would throw a ton of money to win the upcoming county clerk’s race with the sole interest of having someone in place to reduce access to voting.  

If approved by Commissioners Court, the change to an Election Administrator will not take effect until after the 2020 election. Right now, we need to focus all our attention on winning in November and supporting all of our progressive Democrats on the ballot, like Commissioner Ellis and Congressman Al Green. This is why I ask you to support this move by the Court.

The person chosen to be hired for the position of Elections Administrator is not filled by commissioners court. Instead, a county election commission appoints the County Elections Administrator by a vote of at least 3 of the 5 on the committee. This Election Commission would be responsible for filling this position upon creation as well as to replace the Administrator should there be a subsequent vacancy. 

As chair of the Harris County Democratic party, I will have one of the 5 votes on who is chosen to be appointed to be the new Elections Administrator. I hope you’ll join me in supporting this historic and long-overdue change.

Lillie Schechter is the Chairwoman of the Harris County Democratic Party. Under her leadership, Harris County has seen dramatic increases in wins by Democrats.

Photo: Loren Elliott/Getty Images

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