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."