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Texas Republicans target how elections are run in Democratic-leaning Houston area

A voter and her daughter cast a ballot in Houston during the 2020 general election. New bills passed by Texas lawmakers target how elections are run in Harris County, which is home to Houston.
David J. Phillip
A voter and her daughter cast a ballot in Houston during the 2020 general election. New bills passed by Texas lawmakers target how elections are run in Harris County, which is home to Houston.

HOUSTON — Harris County in Texas is a big and diverse county that has trended Democratic over the past decade.

And in the recently completed session of the Texas Legislature, Republican state lawmakers passed measures that specifically target how elections are run in Harris County.

Two bills sent to Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday would remove the county's elections administrator position and allow for the secretary of state — an appointee of the governor — to oversee elections in Harris County, under certain circumstances.

Harris County has struggled to conduct elections in recent years. The then-elections administrator resigned last year after issues with the state primary.

And the November general election was more of the same. Some polls in Democratic-leaning neighborhoods opened hours late. Others experienced malfunctioning machines. And then there were more than two dozen polling sites in Republican-leaning neighborhoods that were forced to temporarily shut down because they ran out of paper ballots.

"I believe, absolutely believe, it was on purpose," said Terry Wheeler, who served as a Republican election judge in Cypress, northwest of Houston. "I've never seen anything like this, the way that they blew us off over the phone and refused to get us paper ballots."

Democrats largely swept the 2022 elections in Harris County. Houston Public Media conducted afive-month investigation of the county's management of those elections, which revealednumerous problems but no evidence that the county had deliberately undersupplied polling sites in Republican-leaning areas. Nor did it determine that the number of people turned away at those sites would have significantly affected the outcome of most contests.

Nevertheless, Republicans at the state and county level decided Harris County's election system was broken and needed state intervention to fix it.

GOP state Sen. Paul Bettencourt of Houston was the author of those two bills related to his home county that are now on the governor's desk.

"Senate Bill 1750 basically returns elections in Harris County back to the elected officials — the county clerk and the tax assessor — like it was before the establishment of the now-defunct elections administrator office," Bettencourt said.

Like many Republicans, Bettencourt holds the county's appointed elections administrator, Clifford Tatum, responsible for the problems of Election Day 2022. He says the elected officials would be more responsive to voters.

But then there's SB 1933.

"[SB 1933] basically grants the secretary of state oversight under specific circumstances for Harris County elections, if necessary, through a complaint process established in the bill," Bettencourt said. In other words, it would allow the state to override, even remove, those same elected officials.

Both bills were amended after being filed to target counties with at least 3.5 million and 4 million people, respectively. That's Harris County alone.

The county's Democratic chief executive, Judge Lina Hidalgo, condemned the two measures.

"Harris County today finds itself grappling with the audacity of Republican state lawmakers, hell-bent on recklessly enhancing the election chances of one party by targeting the largest county in the state," Hidalgo said. "This sets a dangerous precedent and subverts elections in one of the most diverse counties in the nation — another step toward disenfranchisement in the name of 'election reform.' "

County Attorney Christian Menefee, also a Democrat, said, "We have a lot of elected officials, a lot of people who are voted into office to serve their community. Yet these bills target three Black elected officials in Harris County: the elections administrator, the county clerk and the tax assessor collector."

Menefee said the bills won't go unchallenged. "We're suing the state of Texas to protect Harris County, to protect Harris County residents, to protect our public officials, and to stop the state from targeting us," he said.

The current elections administrator has taken steps to alleviate the problems that have plagued voting in the county.

But his job is going away, forcing the county clerk to scramble to oversee November's general election, when Houstonians will choose a new mayor.

Other bills: Illegal voting and ERIC

Texas lawmakers passed other election-related bills with statewide ramifications.

- House Bill 1243 would increase the penalty for voting illegally from a misdemeanor to a second-degree felony, on par with manslaughter and attempted murder. That would reverse a change made by legislators a couple of years ago.

Katya Ehresman of Common Cause Texas has grave concerns about HB 1243, but she said the measure wasn't as bad as another bill the Senate tried to pass, which would have punished a person for voting illegally even if they didn't realize they were committing a crime by casting a ballot. Both measures came after several high-profile cases of individuals beingarrested for voting while still on parole and not having had their voting rights restored yet.

"This version that did pass [HB 1243], while horrible — insofar as it increases the criminalization of voting, and it ultimately will intimidate people from the process because of the threat of felony penalties — it at minimum doesn't include that opened door of prosecutions of mistakes and confusion," Ehresman said.

- Senate Bill 1070 would seek to end the state's participation in the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, a voter data consortium that's been targeted in certain corners by right-wing misinformation.

Copyright 2023 Houston Public Media News 88.7

Andrew Schneider