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Harris County to sue state over election bills

Senate Bill 1933 and Senate Bill 1750 would remove the elections administrator position in Harris County and transfer election duties to other county leaders.

HARRIS COUNTY, Texas — Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee announced Wednesday that the county would sue the state over two bills aimed at local elections. Menefee made the announcement standing alongside other local leaders, including Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Senate Bill 1933 and Senate Bill 1750 would remove the Harris County Elections Administrator position and transfer election duties to other county leaders.

"Texas lawmakers in Austin are undermining Harris County government and targeting three Black Harris County officials. They’re 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," Menefee said. "We’re suing state officials 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."

On an 81-62 party-line vote Tuesday, House Republicans passed Senate Bill 1750, which will abolish the Harris County elections administrator position – a nonpartisan position appointed by local elected officials – and return all election duties to the county clerk and tax assessor-collector.

Also approved Monday was a bill that would let the Texas secretary of state intervene in local elections. It would grant the state the authority to investigate election “irregularities” after complaints are filed and the authority to order the removal of a county election administrator or to file a petition to remove a county officer overseeing elections, such as a clerk, if “a recurring pattern of problems” isn’t resolved. The secretary’s current role in elections is only to guide and assist counties, with no oversight powers.

Senate Bill 1933 was originally written to apply to all counties but was amended on the House floor to impact only Harris County, by the House sponsor of the measure, Rep. Tom Oliverson, R-Cypress. The House’s changes to the bill now have to receive approval from the Senate this week.

The set of bills aimed at the state’s most populous county — and third most populous in the nation — were among about a dozen bills authored by Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who has said Harris County election problems in the past year were the “genesis” of the proposals. The Republican-controlled Texas Legislature in recent years has made it a priority to claw back power from cities and counties, often run by Democrats. Lawmakers this year are poised to put new restrictions on all cities that issue local rules that go further than state law, including labor, agriculture, natural resources and finance.

In last November’s general election, Harris County had to extend voting for an hour after various polling places had malfunctioning voting machines, paper ballot shortages and long waiting periods. More than 20 lawsuits from losing Republican candidates have been filed against the county, citing those problems and seeking a redo of the election.

Harris County leaders say the two bills would set a “dangerous precedent.” That’s why the county announced that it's taking legal action if the proposals become law.

Sen. Paul Bettencourt released a statement Wednesday after 6 p.m. in response.  It reads: 

“There’s a reason why laws are passed in the State of Texas, so that Counties and Election Administrators can follow them. The reason why the EA position and its duties have been returned to the elected officials by SB 1750 is that they did the job for decades correctly, therefore this is about performance not politics.

Both elected Democrat Harris County Office Holders have extensive prior experience in elections and voter registration. The intent of the law is clear to return these duties to both of them, not just the County Clerk. These points were considered by the Legislature and debated, and the law signed by the Governor will be final. 

It’s up to County Judge Hidalgo to realize that both her appointed Election Administrators, one who already resigned in 2022, and the other who had a history of poor performance in Washington D.C., repeatedly failed here in Harris County. 

The Legislature’s support for SB 1750 and SB 1933 is because Harris County is not too big to fail, but too big to ignore. 

The Legislature will next conference on SB 1933 providing oversight from the Texas Secretary of State as the need should arise in future. 

The public’s trust in elections in Harris County must be restored after a continuing set of problems culminating the fact that the current EA couldn’t or wouldn’t get millions of sheets ballot paper out of the warehouse to the polls for voters to vote on, and that’s real voter suppression! It can NOT be tolerated in the Nation’s 3rd Largest County."

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