Harris County scrambles to make creation of Elections Administrator Office lawful after Attorney General's letter identifies deficiencies

The letter came a week after Longoria was virtually sworn into the office by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Nov. 18. (Screenshot via Zoom)
The letter came a week after Longoria was virtually sworn into the office by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Nov. 18. (Screenshot via Zoom)

The letter came a week after Longoria was virtually sworn into the office by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Nov. 18. (Screenshot via Zoom)

Harris County is working to make right the appointment of Isabel Longoria as the county's first-ever elections administrator after County Attorney Vince Ryan received a letter Nov. 25 from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton stating that the county did not follow the proper appointment process, which Paxton said made Longoria's appointment "unlawful" and "null and void."

The letter came one week after Longoria was virtually sworn into the office Nov. 18. As previously reported by Community Impact Newspaper, the newly created office will be tasked with setting polling locations, counting ballots and registering voters—duties previously split between the county clerk and tax assessor-collector.

According to Paxton's letter, the county violated Sections 31.031(d) and 31.032(c) of the Texas Election Code because it did not notify the Texas Secretary of State's Office in a timely manner of certain milestones in the office's creation and in Longoria's appointment, as stipulated in the Texas Election Code.

"In neglecting its obligations under Sections 31.031(d) and 31.032(c), Harris County failed to meet the requisites stipulated in the Election Code," the letter reads. "As a result, neither the Commissioners Court's July 14, 2020 order nor the Election Commission's Oct. 30, 2020 appointment of Ms. Longoria to the position holds any legal weight. In short, the Harris County Election Administrator does not exist. And the duties that would typically be delegated to it pursuant to Sections 31.043, 31.044, and 31.045 remain with the County Clerk and Tax Assessor-Collector."

Paxton's letter continued to state that Harris County must take corrective actions to address the identified deficiencies and that if the county fails to comply within 14 days of the letter's receipt, the state will pursue "appropriate legal remedies."

While the item was discussed during executive session at the Dec. 1 Harris County Commissioners Court, First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard recommended the court take no further action on the item that day. Soard did, however, mention a public letter that would be sent to the Attorney General's office in the near future.

In a discussion that followed the executive session, Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said he agreed with Paxton's opinion and restated his opposition to the creation of an Elections Administrator Office. Cagle said he believes election officials should be held accountable to the public, which he said should mean that they are elected, not appointed.

"I presided over 726 jury trials as a judge. When we saw language like 'shall' and 'must,' that usually meant 'shall' and 'must,'" Cagle said. "And [Section] 31.031 of the Texas Election Code says each appointment must be evidenced by a written resolution, and then, it goes on to say that it shall be filed, and then, it says that the clerk shall deliver a copy. So, when Paxton says we didn't follow the rules, I don't think there's some sort of evil intent behind him insisting ... that we follow ... the wisdom of the legislature in creating these opportunities."

However, Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said he was proud of the county's creation of the Elections Administrator Office and that he was looking forwarding to moving forward with the process. Ellis added that he believed Paxton's letter to be an "attack" on the voting rights of Harris County residents.

"This year alone, he filed a lawsuit to limit 2.5 million voters in Harris County—a county larger than the state of Rhode Island—to a single drop-off location for mail-in ballots, stopped the Harris County Clerk from sending vote-by-mail applications to registered voters [and] encouraged voters not to wear face coverings at polling locations during a global pandemic," Ellis said. "I think that the General's pronouncement that the Harris County Office of Elections Administrator does not exist and calling Ms. Longoria's appointment void over administrative technicalities is just another blatant attempt to continue that assault on Texas voters."

After taking no action on the letter, the Commissioners Court approved two administrative assistant positions and one administrative director position that were requested by the Elections Administrator Office. Cagle and Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack voted against the item.

"While this distraction goes on, Administrator Longoria needs to continue doing her job," County Judge Lina Hidalgo said.
By Hannah Zedaker

Editor, Spring/Klein & Lake Houston/Humble/Kingwood

Hannah joined Community Impact Newspaper as a reporter in May 2016 after graduating with a degree in journalism from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. In March 2019, she transitioned to editor of the Spring/Klein edition and later became the editor of both the Spring/Klein and Lake Houston/Humble/Kingwood editions in June 2021. Hannah covers education, local government, transportation, business, real estate development and nonprofits in these communities. Prior to CI, Hannah served as associate editor of The Houstonian, interned with Community Impact Newspaper and spent time writing for the Sam Houston State University College of Fine Arts and Mass Communication and The Huntsville Item.