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Texas legislature passes bills...

Texas legislature passes bills aimed at Harris County elections

Texas lawmakers approved two bills Tuesday aimed at Harris County elections that would give state Republicans the power to remove the county’s elections administrator and allow the Texas secretary of state to oust local elections officials for “good cause” after an election complaint is filed. 

The bills apply to counties with more than 3.5 or 4 million people, respectively; Harris is the only county in the state that meets those criteria.

Under Senate Bill 1933, written by Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), Secretary of State Jane Nelson—who was appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott—can remove a local official after conducting an investigation prompted by “a recurring pattern of problems with election administration.” Examples of recurring issues include a malfunctioning voting system that stops a person from casting a vote, misconduct in distributing election supplies and errors in counting results that would have impacted the outcome of an election, among others. The House approved SB 1933 in an 81-59 vote. 

Senate Bill 1750 removes the elections administrator position in counties with 3.5 million people or more. In an 81-62 vote, House lawmakers voted to pass SB 1750 Tuesday afternoon. 

The two bills further narrow local control of elections following Senate Bill 1, which was signed into law in 2021 and banned drive-thru voting, 24-hour voting, and added restrictions on distributing mail-in ballot applications. SB 1 was passed after Harris County expanded voter access during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

As the largest county in the state, Harris County has 4.7 million residents, with 782 polling places across the county. After the 2022 midterm elections, dozens of GOP candidates filed lawsuits against the county, citing paper ballot shortages at voting centers and technical issues on machines. Republican candidates and lawmakers argue the problems on Election Day disenfranchised voters and turned away thousands of voters. But an April report by the Houston Chronicle dispelled those claims, finding that based on county data, around 21 locations lost paper on Election Day, a small fraction of the total. 

Nonetheless, GOP lawmakers have pushed for more restrictions in Harris County.

Local officials, including Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee, said the fight isn’t over and that they are evaluating legal options. 

“Republican legislators are again targeting Harris County, singling us out to score cheap political points,” Menefee said in a Tuesday statement. “This sets a dangerous precedent, and we all know the legislators in Austin won’t stop here – this will lead to more attempts to remove local officials in the state’s most diverse counties. 

If signed by the governor, both bills will go into effect on Sept. 1.