Harris County, Texas vows to sue over election reform laws
The bills are not yet finalized.
After the House passed two key election reform bills this week, measures that passed the Senate last month, Democrats in Harris County said they planned to sue over them.
The bills are not yet finalized. Once they are certified, Gov. Greg Abbott is expected to sign them into law.
Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, and Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis announced their plan to sue over SB 1750 and SB 1933, bills filed by Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston.
“Texas lawmakers in Austin are undermining Harris County government and targeting three, Black Harris County officials,” Menefee said in a statement on Wednesday, making the issue about race.
After the November general election, primarily Black residents protested outside of the Harris County Commissioners Court. They chanted, “stop stealing votes,” while holding signs that read, “voter fraud is wrong,” “respect Harris County voters,” “votes should be counted on time,” “stop stealing elections in Harris County,” among others.
Roar Room, [Nov 15, 2022 at 2:03 PM]TEXAS: Harris County protesters are out in full force with signs shouting, "Stop stealing votes!"@GeneralMCNews pic.twitter.com/WrIRp7ucuR— Louise Hemphill-Nolan (@nolan_hemphill) November 15, 2022
Menefee said the legislature was “blowing up our elections office and setting the stage to remove two elected officials. This is more than just bad public policy, it’s bad for our democracy.”
He said the Democratic officials were suing “because these bills are clearly unconstitutional – our state’s constitution bars lawmakers from passing laws that target one specific city or county, putting their personal vendettas over what’s best for Texans. Republican lawmakers are disregarding the will of Harris County voters. But to protect Harris County communities, our public servants, and our residents – we’re going to fight.”
Bettencourt issued his own statement Wednesday, saying the bills will “restore voter trust, accountability, and transparency in Harris County elections by returning the management of elections back to elected officials.
“An appointed Elections Administrator that either couldn’t or wouldn’t get millions of sheets of ballot paper from the warehouse to the polls for voters to vote on, on November 8th, will be gone by September 1,” when the bill is scheduled to go into effect.
“Now voters in Harris County can be assured that the officials running their elections are elected and accountable to the public, with expected final passage of SB 1750.” The bill passed the Senate on April 18 and passed the House on May 23 and went back to the Senate on the same day.
Harris County, under Hidalgo, combined the power and duties of two offices, the County Tax Assessor-Collector and County Clerk, into one, the Harris County Elections Administrator, whose first two administrators oversaw widespread voting problems. They ranged from 10,000 lost ballots, no paper for ballots, turning voters away on Election Day in mostly Republican precincts, among others. The bill returns the process to the way it was, as is the case in other counties: the County Tax Assessor-Collector will serve as the voter registrar, the County Clerk will oversee election administration duties.
Bettencourt, a former Tax Assessor-Collector who served with former County Clerk Beverly Kaufman for 10 years, said, “Both Elections Administrators that were appointed by the Harris County Judge bombed their elections. In 2022, the former Harris County Election Administrator ‘found’ 10,000 votes and released a statement at 10:30 p.m. on a Saturday night that led to her resignation. Then, the current EA either wouldn’t or couldn’t get millions of paper ballots out of the warehouse and to the polls with thousands of voters being turned away for lack of ballots. And after six months, the current EA still hasn’t publicly explained what happened.”
SB 1933, sponsored by House Rep. Tom Oliverson, R-Cypress, grants authority of administrative oversight over a county to the Secretary of State’s office. The SOS would review and investigate complaints made by candidates, county state party chairs, presiding or alternate judges, among others. It passed the Senate on April 13 and the House on May 23 with amendments. It heads back to the Senate.
It would “ensure the failures, or the fiasco of the general election never occurs again with the Texas Secretary of State oversight of the election process, if necessary,” Bettencourt said. He also noted that one of the amendments that was added in the House limited SOS oversight solely to Harris County, which he said the Senate would review.
Menefee said this bill “allows the Secretary of State to exert control over, and file lawsuits to remove, only two elected officials in the entire state: the Harris County Clerk and the Harris County Tax-Assessor Collector.”
Elected county officials can already be removed from office, according to local government code, Sec. 87.013, “General Grounds for Removal. It stipulates that an officer can be removed from office for incompetency, official misconduct or intoxication on or off duty caused by drinking an alcoholic beverage. Ch. 149, Sec. 1, was enacted by the 70th legislature and became effective Sept. 1, 1987.