May 25, 2023 - News

Harris County plans to sue state over election laws

Photo illustration of Judge Lina Hidalgo with lines radiating from her.

Photo illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios; Photo: Alex Bierens de Haan/Getty Images

Harris County leaders are preparing to fight two bills targeting how the county conducts elections.

Catch up quick: Both the state Senate and the state House passed Senate Bill 1750 and S.B. 1933, each of which would affect the Harris County Elections Administrator's Office.

  • S.B. 1750 would abolish the elections administrator's office — created in 2020 — and transfer election duties back to the county clerk and tax assessor.
  • S.B. 1933 would allow the Texas secretary of state — an appointee of the governor — to take over election administration duties after a formal complaint and investigation.
  • A last-minute provision was added to S.B. 1933 on Tuesday that makes the bill apply only to Harris County.

Driving the news: Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee announced the county will sue the state as soon as Gov. Greg Abbott signs the bills — which is likely — arguing that it's unconstitutional for the Legislature to single out one government entity when enacting laws.

  • While Harris County isn't named in the legislation, it applies only to counties with a population over 4 million — and Harris County is the only county in the state to qualify.
  • The bills take effect Sept. 1. The City of Houston is slated to elect a new mayor and several City Council members on Nov. 7.

What they're saying: "We call BS on the excuses that legislators are using to remove the rights of our constituents," Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said at a press conference Wednesday. "These bills are not about election reform. They're not about improving voters' experience. They are entirely about suppressing voters' voices."

The intrigue: Both bills were authored by Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), who has long lambasted the elections administrator's office, currently overseen by Hidalgo's appointee Clifford Tatum.

  • The former administrator, Isabel Longoria, resigned after a discrepancy with the vote count in the 2022 primary.

The other side: In a tweet, Bettencourt called the bills' passage a "major victory" for Harris County voters.

  • "Both elections administrators that were appointed by the Harris County judge bombed their elections," Bettencourt said in a statement. "... S.B. 1933 will 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."

Dig deeper: Both county and city officials called for federal oversight of the situation.

  • Mayor Sylvester Turner called on the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene, and Hidalgo said her office has been in touch with the White House.

Flashback: Paper ballot shortages at a handful of voting centers during the November 2022 election sparked outrage from Republicans, including Bettencourt.

Yes, but: Separate investigations by the Houston Chronicle and Houston Public Media found that voters weren't systematically disenfranchised during the November election — and that only 20 polling places out of 723 (2.8%) experienced a paper shortage.

Of note: Other bills targeting Harris County, including one allowing the Texas secretary of state to order an entirely new election if more than 2% of polling places run out of paper in any given election, failed to pass the House on time.

What we're watching: S.B. 1933 will now go back to the Senate, which will either accept the changes from the House or convene a group of lawmakers to hash out the differences.

  • S.B. 1750 heads straight to Abbott's desk.

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