Texas Republicans Want To Take Houston’s Power Away

A blue map of Harris County surrounded by hands grabbing red colored pieces of it.

On Monday, Texas’ regular legislative session came to an end. During its five-month session, the Legislature passed seven anti-voting bills and sent five pro-voting bills to Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) desk. Among the legislation that made it through were bills specifically targeting Harris County, Texas’ most populous county and home to Houston. 

The legislative attacks on Harris County range from taking over Houston’s public schools to prohibiting certain types of local ordinances to changing how the county runs its elections. Purportedly in response to Election Day problems in 2022, the bills — which would remove election officials and create a process to take over election administration  — seek to override Harris County officials and grant statewide Republican officials wide authority over the Democratic stronghold’s election processes.

Harris County experienced some Election Day problems that Republicans used to claim that election results were tainted.

The efforts to change how Harris County runs its elections stem from the 2022 midterm elections, when some polling locations in the county experienced voting problems on Election Day. Some polling places opened late while others ran out of ballot paper. These problems, unfortunately, are not uncommon in American elections and are often the result of chronic underfunding of elections or mistakes in election administration. 

The issues were ultimately limited in scope and a subsequent report conducted by the county elections administrator found that approximately 68 precincts reported running out of ballot paper out of 782 total polling locations. Of those, 61 reported receiving additional paper later in the day.

Nevertheless, Republicans in Texas immediately seized on these Election Day issues to cast doubt on the veracity of Harris County’s election results. Some candidates even went as far as to file lawsuits challenging their losses. Alexander Mealer, the Republican candidate for Harris County executive contested her loss to incumbent Lina Hidalgo (D), alleging that voters in high-turnout, Republican areas were “suppressed” due to “intentional fraud.” The Republican candidate in the 135th House District made similar claims when he objected to his loss (by 16%). Rather than acknowledge that Election Day issues are the result of human error and the complexities of running elections, Republicans chose to portray the problems as the result of some nefarious plot to disenfranchise their voters.

An investigation by the Houston Chronicle later found that Republican claims of intentional voter suppression were unfounded. Ballot shortages were not targeted at Republican areas and problems were not as widespread as state leaders implied. Additionally, Republicans struggled to point to any evidence that the problems changed the outcome of the elections.

In response, Republicans passed bills giving themselves authority over Harris County elections.

Meanwhile, Republican legislators began introducing legislation, purportedly in response to Harris County’s issues, that hone in on election administration in the county. Many were authored by state Senator Paul Bettencourt (R), who filed legislation in 2021 seeking to initiate an Arizona-style audit of Texas’ 2020 election results and championed other restrictive voting bills. Two of Bettencourt’s bills cleared the legislative process and are currently awaiting action from  Abbott. Rather than address the actual roots of the Election Day issues, the bills go much further and allow Republican officials to exercise unprecedented control over elections in the state’s most populous county.

One of such bills, Senate Bill 1750, would abolish the position of election administrator in the county, reverting election duties to the elected county clerk and county tax assessor — positions held by Republicans as recently as 2018 and 2016, respectively. This provision seems to be purely punitive, a way to punish the election administration and deprive Harris County’s government of the right to decide how to run its elections. This bill wouldn’t necessarily do anything to prevent future election problems, as there’s nothing to suggest the structural organization of Harris County elections was responsible. 

The other approved bill, on the other hand, could result in drastic changes. Senate Bill 1933 would allow the secretary of state to essentially take over all aspects of Harris County (and only Harris County) elections if someone involved in an election, like a candidate or election official, lodges a complaint against the county. If the secretary has “good cause” to believe a problem exists, they can exercise unlimited oversight of election procedures and are empowered to approve and reject policy even if it is unrelated to the basis of the complaint. Theoretically, if someone were to file a complaint about voter list maintenance, the secretary of state could take over the county’s elections and then decide to change every aspect of election administration beyond just list maintenance. Rather than narrowly tailoring the legislative remedy to the actual issue, Texas Republicans seized the opportunity as a pretext to grant themselves much greater control over Harris County.

One Republican bill that failed to make it through the session betrays state lawmakers’ real motive for targeting Harris County. Bettencourt also championed a proposal to ban countywide polling programs in Texas, a system used by the most populous counties in the state, whereby  voters can vote at any polling location in the county, not just the local one assigned to them. Such a policy likely helped alleviate the Election Day problems, since voters at polling places that ran out of ballot paper were able to go to another one. Despite that, the Texas Senate passed a bill banning these programs, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) hopes to revive it in a special session later this year. Republicans aren’t actually interested in making sure elections run smoothly; they just want to exercise control over a Democratic county.

Republicans increasingly seek to limit Democratic influence in blue cities and counties.

The Texas bills interfering with how Harris County runs its elections aren’t outliers among GOP-led states. Across the country, red states have targeted their own Democratic strongholds, with Tennessee targeting Nashville’s Davidson County, Florida meddling with the prosecutorial discretion of elected Democratic district attorneys and Mississippi creating an unelected court system in Jackson, the state capital. 

For many Republican lawmakers, it has become unacceptable for Democrats to exercise political power over their own jurisdictions. When coupled with Republican attacks on voting and efforts to make ballot measures more difficult, it’s clear that attacks on who can participate in our elections isn’t enough for the GOP. They want to change who gets to run them, too.