Texas GOP Moves To Commandeer Elections In Houston

AUSTIN, TEXAS - JANUARY 31: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks during a news conference on January 31, 2023 in Austin, Texas. Gov. Abbott held a meeting and news conference in preparation for the winter storm that is swee... AUSTIN, TEXAS - JANUARY 31: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks during a news conference on January 31, 2023 in Austin, Texas. Gov. Abbott held a meeting and news conference in preparation for the winter storm that is sweeping across portions of Texas. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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Texas state lawmakers crept closer late Monday night to approving a series of bills aimed at stripping one of the country’s largest cities of the authority to run its own elections.

The measures single out Harris County, home both to 4.7 million people and to much of the city of Houston, the biggest in Texas.

Texas state lawmakers are poised on Tuesday to pass two bills: one which would fire Harris County’s elections administrator, and another which would lay out a process to give the Texas Secretary of State veto power over how elections are run in the area.

One amendment added late on Monday night in the state House made the legislature’s intent even harder to ignore, clarifying that the measures are meant to apply only to one very specific, large, Democratic-voting city — and not the rest of Texas. The Texas Secretary of State, per the amendment, only has veto power over election policies in counties with a population of 4 million or more. After Harris, Dallas County is the second-largest, and has a population of 2.6 million per the most recent census.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said that the legislation would “strip autonomy from the county.” The state Senate now has to approve the measure.

Texas lawmakers have spent years using voter fraud conspiracy theories to attack elections administration in heavily populated areas that happen to be voting increasingly Democratic. Many of these emerged out of former President Trump’s effort to reverse his loss in the 2020 election, though the author of the two bills in question has faced accusations of voter suppression for years preceding Trump’s attempt to stay in office after defeat.

The assault on Houston’s elections is spread over multiple pieces of legislation. SB 1750 would fire the election administrators of all counties in the state with a population of 3.5 million or more.

SB 1933 would allow state officials to reach deep into the state’s elections machinery while making it dramatically easier for any voter fraud complaint, regardless of basis in fact, to receive attention from high-ranking state officials.

Per the proposal, the secretary of state will have the authority to impose “administrative oversight” on elections in any Texas county. That would allow the secretary of state to assume control of election policies in a given county, and to fire local officials deemed “to impede the free exercise of a citizen ’s voting rights in the county.”

Candidates, judges, and party and PAC leaders can file a complaint, at which point the investigation is handled by the secretary of state.

The bill also empowers the secretary of state to station observers for “in-person observation” of all election office activities.

Common Cause organizer Katya Ehresman told TPM that the measures give the secretary of state “a lot of subjectivity in how it’s decided,” describing it as a “dilution of democracy.”

Republicans, led by Donald Trump, have moved since 2020 to roll back measures taken in response to the COVID-19 pandemic which made it easier for voters to access the polls.

The Texas Senate voted to advance both bills earlier this month, and are set for a final vote on Tuesday. It dropped another proposal, SB 1993, which would have allowed the Secretary of State to “rerun” elections in Harris County if precincts were unable to supply paper ballots to voters for more than two hours.

For Want of A Paper Ballot

The combination of bills to remove the Harris County elections administrator and to give the state the authority to run local elections after a process comes after years of conspiracy theories about voting in the area. GOP lawmakers have focused nearly all their rhetoric for justifying both bills on Harris County, though SB 1933 would apply statewide.

The state lawmaker sponsoring SB 1750 and SB 1933 is Senator Paul Bettencourt (R), a former Harris County tax assessor-collector who was responsible for running the county’s elections during his tenure in the office from 1998 to 2008.

The Austin-American Statesman reported in 2008 that Bettencourt resigned amid accusations of widespread voter suppression in the area, including support for draconian voter ID laws and allegations that his office failed to process voter registrations. Bettencourt denied at the time that his resignation was linked with the voter suppression accusations, instead citing a “private business venture” that attracted him.

But now as a state lawmaker, Bettencourt has been a vocal proponent of taking elections authority away from his home Harris County. To make the case, Bettencourt cited recent high-profile hiccups in the area’s election management, including a November 2022 case in which various Harris County precincts ran out of paper on which to process ballot receipts

Bettencourt joined a chorus of local Republicans who immediately suggested that the mishap was a targeted effort to suppress conservative votes — though no evidence was marshaled to prove that, and subsequent investigations showed that paper shortages occurred across a random distribution of precincts that equally affected areas with support for both parties.

Harris County officials have said that recent requirements set by the state legislature — including one mandating that the county use paper receipts to verify each vote case — have made it more difficult to run elections.

“Over the past legislative session, laws have been passed to make it harder for us to conduct our elections,” Harris County judge Lina Hidalgo told reporters last week. “In the face of those challenges, we created the elections administrator’s office, which as I mentioned, has helped us move through those hurdles and conduct elections efficiently.” 

The paper-receipt push, Ehresman said, was fueled by 2020-era MAGA allegations that electronic votes could be easily manipulated. The state’s largest county had trouble implementing that requirement in 2022, she said, providing more justification for the GOP to encroach on local authority.

Or, as Bettencourt put it this month: “In Harris County, elections were running far better under elected officials, the county clerk and the tax assessor, than they were under this appointed elections administrator.”

He added to the Houston Chronicle that other Texas counties could get the same treatment.

“I would hope that this type of performance never occurs in another county,” Bettencourt said. “But if it does, then I think the state is capable of coming in and taking the action.”

Bettencourt tweeted later on Tuesday that he ran into former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the Texas Capitol, and said that he had assured the former Number 10 resident that he was “cracking down on a leftist progressive (Harris County) Elections Administrator.”

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