Harris County begins exploring voter registration, election alternatives

The way elections are run and voters are registered in Harris County could look different following the 2020 elections, as Harris County Commissioners Court has begun exploring alternatives to the county's current democratic system. (Graphic by Ronald Winters/Community Impact Newspaper)
The way elections are run and voters are registered in Harris County could look different following the 2020 elections, as Harris County Commissioners Court has begun exploring alternatives to the county's current democratic system. (Graphic by Ronald Winters/Community Impact Newspaper)

The way elections are run and voters are registered in Harris County could look different following the 2020 elections, as Harris County Commissioners Court has begun exploring alternatives to the county's current democratic system. (Graphic by Ronald Winters/Community Impact Newspaper)

The way elections are run and voters are registered in Harris County could look different following the 2020 elections, as Harris County Commissioners Court has begun exploring alternatives to the county's current democratic system.

Under the existing system, the duty of running elections and registering voters is split between the Harris County clerk and tax-assessor collector, both of which are elected positions currently held by Ann Harris Bennett and Chris Hollins, respectively. In addition to running elections, the county clerk is also tasked with issuing marriage licenses; recording documents related to real property transactions; filing assumed name certificates; maintaining a index and issuing copies of all recorded documents; and maintaining and issuing copies of birth, death and marriage licenses. Likewise, the county tax assessor-collector is tasked with collecting taxes and performing vehicle registrations and title transfers countywide, in addition to serving as the county voter registrar.

"Today in Harris County, voters have had a number of problems we've dealt with," Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said during the July 14 Commissioners Court meeting. "Voters have been wrongly suspended from the [polls], they've been placed in incorrect districts [and] voters at [Texas Southern University] faced six-plus hours in line waiting to vote in the last election. Harris County right now ranks ninth out of the ten largest counties in Texas in the percentage of voter registration growth from November 2016 until March 2020. Harris County voter registration grew by only 2% in spite of citizen voting age growth of 4% between 2016 and 2018."

In hopes of improving the county's level of voter participation and making the process of registering voters and running elections more efficient, Ellis proposed three alternatives to the county's current system, which are outlined in the Texas Election Code: creating the Office of the Harris County Office Election Administrator, which would have a sole purpose to register voters and run elections; transferring the election-related duties of the county clerk to the tax assessor-collector; or designating the county clerk as the voter registrar, effectively transferring those duties from the tax assessor-collector.

As the options that allow for the transfer of duties between the county clerk and tax-assessor collector would require the consent of both elected officials, Ellis said he favored the option which creates the office of an election administrator. According to Ellis, under this system, a board comprising the county judge, county clerk, county tax-assessor collector, Republican Party chair and Democratic Party chair would be created and tasked with the search for and appointment of an election administrator. The appointment of such an official would require three votes from that board, and the removal of that official would require four votes, Ellis added. Additionally, the system change would not go into effect until Nov. 18—two weeks after Election Day—to allow the election administrator to observe the county's current election process as a bystander.


"A neutral, nonpartisan [election] administrator will increase election integrity [and] increase voters' trust in the process," Ellis said. "Moving elections and voter registration under one department will increase efficiency, allow employees to focus solely on elections and allow for more coordination in all aspects of voting."

According to Ellis, all other urban counties in the state of Texas—with the exception of Harris and Travis counties—have already switched the the election administrator system.

"There is probably merit to give this [duty] to someone other than someone who runs for election to run the elections," Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said. "I think there is a lot of merit in creating some separation there."

However, the proposal was met with opposition from Precincts 3 and 4 Commissioners Steve Radack and Jack Cagle—as well as several residents from both sides of the aisle who called into the virtual meeting to share their opinions on the item. Cagle said he opposed the proposed system due to its lack of checks and balances and public engagement.

"Even though our tax-assessor collector and our county clerk do not share my party affiliation, I believe that the principle of having people stand before the population," Cagle said during the meeting, which took place the same day as the election day for the 2020 primary runoffs. "This is a very significant change; we're talking about checks and balances in the system when we have two different members of elected bodies that normally are in the process. And one of the most important people, or sets of people, that are impacted by this are our precinct chairs and our election judges, who are not able to participate in this discussion today because they're in an election—there's an actual election that's going on right now."

Radack echoed Cagle's concerns, stating he thought the impending system change could become a "distraction" for the precinct chairs and election judges throughout the November presidential election.

"You've got to think about the uncertainty for the future of people in the county clerk's office that are in elections that we're expecting to work at peak performance, and they're wondering where they'll be working or who they'll be working for maybe this year," Radack said. "So I don't think we need to create any chaos in people's minds about, 'Where do I get my voter registration?' ... The 2020 elections are here; we're in the middle of them. And I think it's an awful bad message to send to people that 'Hey, the people that you register to vote with could be changing; the people running the election in the county clerk's office could be changing,' so I just highly recommend that y'all put this off."

However, Ellis and County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the timing made sense, as the position of county clerk is up for grabs this November following the resignation of Diane Trautman effective May 31. Hollins has since been appointed by Commissioners Court to serve as interim county clerk until a new county clerk can be elected Nov. 3.

"It's a difficult conversation when you have the momentum that this existing system has been done since the time of Jim Crow [laws], but just because it's the way we've always done it doesn't mean it's the right way to do it," Hidalgo said during the meeting. "And I think it's pretty clear, if we're honest, if we were designing a system from scratch, we wouldn't design [the existing] one. We would design a system where the folks that are collecting the taxes ... that they're solely focused on that and the folks that are focused on the clerk's duties—which are enormous—they're solely focused on that, and then we'd have an independent body that has plenty of checks and balances with a bipartisan board including elected officials ... [in charge of] both registration and voting. So I actually think the timing is something we need to take advantage of."

In a split 3-2 vote, the court authorized the county attorney, auditor and budget management department to study the budget, facilities, equipment and personnel that would be needed to be transferred from the county clerk and tax assessor-collector to the administrator to perform the duties of the office, with the caveat that there must be a public hearing with stakeholders on the proposal, prior to the study's return to court in 30 days. Radack and Cagle voted against the measure.

Upon the study's return, the court will need to vote on the approval of the report and plan before proceeding with the process of creating an elections administrator office. Additionally, if the new system is pursued and does not pan out as planned, with a majority vote the Commissioners Court can opt to return to the current system at any time, Ellis said.

"I know we can do better than we have been doing in our county. I don't want to have the kind of embarrassments or [be] the embarrassment that we are in Texas with such low voter participation," Ellis said. "The office of county clerk would not go away; the office of tax-assessor [collector] would not go way; those offices would focus on the issues that they were intended to handle."
By Hannah Zedaker
Born and raised in Cypress, Texas, Hannah Zedaker graduated from Sam Houston State University in 2016 with a bachelor's degree in mass communication and a minor in political science. She began as an intern with Community Impact Newspaper in 2015 and was hired upon graduation as a reporter for The Woodlands edition in May 2016. In January 2019, she was promoted to serve as the editor of the Spring/Klein edition where she covers Spring ISD and Harris County Commissioners Court, in addition to business, development and transportation news.


MOST RECENT

Face coverings are now required for those entering polling places in Texas during the general election. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Citing racial discrimination, district court judge voids exemption to face covering order for voters, poll workers

A district judge's decision sided with arguments that an exemption to the statewide face covering order violated the Voting Rights Act due to disproportionate effects of COVID-19 for Black and Latino Americans.

A new $40 million COVID-19 relief fund is opening to Harris County residents from Nov. 2-6. (Courtesy Fotolia)
Harris County to provide $40 million in new needs-based COVID-19 relief funding starting Nov. 2

A new $40 million COVID-19 relief fund is opening to Harris County residents from Nov. 2-6.

The Center for Houston’s Future released a report Oct. 28 that looks at the economic vitality of the region’s health care system and assesses the region’s community health. (Courtesy Pexels)
Report: 1 in 4 jobs added by 2036 in Greater Houston will be in the health care sector

However, failing to further develop a talent pipeline in medical expertise would lead to job losses, the report notes.

Houston Morning Market Company is poised to launch three new markets across the Greater Houston area by Nov. 19. (Courtesy Houston Morning Market Company)
Heights Morning Market owner to launch markets in Tomball, Conroe, downtown

“The goal is really just bringing communities together, bringing diversity to these rural communities,” Hayley Summers said.

Inspired by Nashville hot chicken, the new restaurant will offer chicken tender bites, jumbo chicken tenders, chicken sandwiches and bone-in chicken with five heat level options, from "Wimpy" to "Cluckin' Hot." (Courtesy Tumble 22)
Tumble 22's Nashville hot chicken coming to Klein and more Houston-area news

Read the latest business and community news from the Houston area.

The new location features a menu of pizzas, pasta, wings and salads. (Courtesy Center Court Pizza and Brew)
Center Court Pizza and Brew opens Spring location on Gosling Road

The new location features a menu of pizzas, pasta, wings and salads.

The new studio offers 24-hour access to virtually instructed infrared sauna workouts, from hot yoga and hot Pilates to hot barre and hot cycle. (Courtesy HOTWORX)
HOTWORX 24-hour infrared fitness studio now open in Spring

The new studio offers 24-hour access to virtually instructed infrared sauna workouts, from hot yoga and hot Pilates to hot barre and hot cycle.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo also spearheaded an effort to establish a $10 million Early Childhood Impact Fund, which was approved in a split 3-2 vote Oct. 27. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Harris County establishes $10M Early Childhood Impact Fund, selects organizations to administer additional $7.3M in assistance

Approximately $17.3 million in assistance programs will soon be available to Harris County residents in need, thanks to three programs recently established by the Harris County Commissioners Court.

The newly approved rate of $0.59920 per $100 valuation is a decrease of $0.01250 from the FY 2019-20 tax rate of $0.61170 per $100 valuation; it is intended to mitigate rising property values across the county, officials said. (Courtesy Fotolia)
Harris County Commissioners Court unanimously approves tax rate decrease for FY 2020-21

The newly approved rate of $0.59920 per $100 valuation is a decrease of $0.01250 from the FY 2019-20 tax rate of $0.61170 per $100 valuation.

Located at 307 N. Sam Houston Pkwy. E., Houston, the restaurant offered a variety of Cajun and Creole staples, from seafood gumbo and crawfish etouffée to whole Maine lobster and oysters on the half-shell. (Courtesy Jimmy G's Cajun Seafood)
Jimmy G's Cajun Seafood to close after 35 years in North Houston

After 35 years of serving the North Houston area, Jimmy G's Cajun Seafood announced via Facebook Oct. 24 that its last day of service will be Oct. 30 at 2 p.m.

Harris County residents line up outside of Big Stone Lodge in Spring to cast their votes early. (Andy Li/Community Impact Newspaper)
Harris County polling locations operating with extended hours in final three days of early voting

More than 1.2 million county residents have already voted in the Nov. 3 general election.

A Cy-Fair ISD employee distributes meals via curbside pickup for district students during the summer. (Courtesy Cy-Fair ISD)
Cy-Fair ISD reports 66 COVID-19 cases among students, staff Oct. 19-25

Cy-Fair ISD officials reported the highest number of new weekly cases since the start of the school year.