As Clerk Resigns, TX’s Harris County Considers Appointing Election Administrator

[Image via alliekayglass]

Following the news that its county clerk is resigning, Texas’ Harris County (Houston) is discussing whether or not to follow the lead of other counties and appoint rather than elect its election administrator. The Houston Chronicle has more:

A week after Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman announced she would resign due to health concerns, Commissioners Court on Tuesday plans to debate whether to appoint an independent administrator to run county elections.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who proposed the idea, said a partisan elections administration can unfairly inject politics into what is supposed to be an apolitical process.

“In more extreme cases, the politicization of decisions may paralyze the entire process,” Ellis, a Democrat, said in a statement.

One benefit of the change would be unify election duties in a single office, replacing the current bifurcated system:

The move would put a single office in charge of running elections and managing the voter roll, both gargantuan tasks in the state’s largest county, which has 4.7 million residents. Voter registration is currently the responsibility of the tax assessor-collector, owing to the office’s historic role collecting poll taxes. The county clerk’s office administers elections.

The county attorney’s office prepared a four-page memorandum last week detailing how to switch to an elections administrator. Of the 10 most populous counties in Texas, only Harris and Travis have yet to adopt the elections administrator model.

The nonpartisan model is successful because a centralized elections department can more efficiently update voting infrastructure, like machines and poll books, based on changes to the roll, said Hidalgo County Elections Administrator Yvonne Ramón.

“I don’t care how perfect our elections are running, how the machines and everyone is trained — if my voter registration database is not up to date… then we’re not as good as we should be,” said Ramón, who also is president of the Texas Association of Elections Administrators.

The position of elections administrator is created by Commissioners Court.

The challenge is that the idea has yet to gain traction with any of the individuals who would actually choose the appointed administrator:

A majority of the county election commission, comprised of the county judge, county clerk, tax assessor-collector and the chairs of the county Republican and Democratic parties, is needed to appoint an individual to the administrator job.

None of those officials has outright endorsed the idea of creating an elections administration office. Trautman, whose last day as county clerk is May 31, said she was unaware of the proposal and had no comment. Tax Assessor-Collector Ann Harris Bennett said she had yet to review the idea.

Harris County Republican Party Chairman Paul Simpson panned the idea, since an appointed elections administrator would not be directly accountable to voters.

“A move such as this would undermine the vital role of empowering Harris County citizens to have greater participation in government, as Judge Lina Hidalgo promised when she began her administration,” Simpson said.

His Democratic counterpart, Lillie Schecter, did not respond to a request for comment.

Hidalgo and Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia, both Democrats, said they looked forward to evaluating the idea. Precinct 4 Republican Jack Cagle declined comment.

Harris County has been down this road before, given its size and complexity:

It is not the first time the idea has come up.

A proposal by former Harris County Judge Ed Emmett to appoint an elections administrator in 2010 failed following pushback, including from fellow Republicans.

Commissioners Court plans to appoint an interim county clerk on Tuesday, who would serve until a new clerk can be elected in November. [The choice was a state Democratic party official who will serve on an interim basis through 2020. – DMCj]

Harris County’s sheer size —almost 1,800 square miles — and third-in-the-nation population long has made running elections challenging.

The county has had its share of issues in recent years, which would fall to the new administrator:

Trautman successfully launched countywide voting, though both major elections she oversaw were marred by problems. Her office needed nearly 12 hours to report full results from the November municipal elections, a delay she blamed on unclear guidance from the secretary of state that forced a change in how votes were counted.

Some Democratic voters waited hours in line to cast ballots in the March primaries. Trautman signed off on a plan to place most voting machines in Republican commissioner precincts, despite accurate projections of far heavier Democratic turnout. Hidalgo and Ellis were particularly upset with Trautman over the incident because the county clerk never informed them of the change.

Voter registration has also tripped up the tax assessor-collector. Bennett mistakenly placed more than 1,700 voters on the office’s suspension list in 2018 after a Republican Party official challenged some registrations.

Later that year, her office failed to incorporate changes to the city of Baytown’s boundaries into its maps, resulting in about 300 voters receiving incorrect ballots for municipal elections.

Normally an early proposal like this wouldn’t garner much attention, but given how big Harris County is in the Lone Star State – both in size and in importance – any discussion of such a change is a significant development. It will be interesting to see if the performance of the interim clerk is viewed through the lens of the possible switch – and if that switch happens anytime soon. Stay tuned …

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