Harris County, Texas, is often described as a bellwether for Texas and the nation, whether in the context of climate change, population growth or demographic shifts. That’s why the Texas Legislature’s attack on the county’s ability to conduct free and fair elections should concern everyone.
Mere weeks before early voting, the Texas Supreme Court allowed the forced reorganization of elections operations in Harris County to proceed. As outlined in Senate Bill 1750, the Republican-led Legislature removed elections and voter registration management from the appointed county election administrator and shifted these responsibilities to the county clerk and the tax office, both of which are elected positions.
How did we get here? Through “the danger of a single story,” as writer Chimamanda Adichie has warned. A single story without context, historical perspective and the texture of multiple viewpoints limits understanding, leading to dangerous conclusions that ignore the voices of those most impacted.
Consider the narrative fueling S.B. 1750 and other measures targeting elections in the state’s largest county: a single story of polling location mismanagement. Key parts of this single story are not without merit, including malfunctioning equipment, ballot paper shortages, insufficient technology support and a shortage of experienced poll workers during the 2022 election.
However, instead of viewing this single story in context, reflecting on the county’s growing pains or need for increased innovation and strengthened training, state legislators built on this single story as they entered the 88th legislative session.
Legislators used this story to elicit large-scale interventions that directly attack local control. Local critics also used this story to call for the county to substantially reduce polling locations — a change that historically harms communities of color.
Fifty eight years after passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) and 10 years after Shelby County v. Holder gutted its key preclearance protections, the battle for free and fair elections rages on.
Drastic interventions, based on a single story.
But there’s more to the story than S.B. 1750’s authors would have you believe. In 2022, counties across the country struggled to find experienced poll workers. Further, this was the first major general election not significantly altered by COVID-19 since Harris County adopted countywide polling places, leaving the county with limited data to accurately predict sites’ machine and paper needs.
It was also the first major election since Texas adopted its omnibus voter suppression bill, Senate Bill 1, in 2021, making voting by mail more difficult, expanding penalties for election law violations and increasing poll watchers’ powers to potentially harass poll workers and voters.
Harris County was also home to the country’s longest ballot. The ballot length compounded other problems, as voters simultaneously inserted two ballot pages into machines designed for a single page. Mangled ballots resulted in lost ballot paper and equipment downtime, exacerbating the need for more staff and resources than were available.
No single story justifies interventions that completely change the nature of voting — whether through new laws like S.B. 1750 or the proposal to dramatically reduce the county’s number of polling places in favor of fewer mega-sites.
Sweeping changes to the election process can have decades-long consequences for communities of color. In the first five years after Shelby County removed the VRA’s preclearance requirement, three Texas counties, including Harris County, each closed more polling locations than all but one other U.S. county: Maricopa County, Arizona.
As the population of Harris County, the nation’s third largest county, increased by over 600,000 people between 2010 and 2020, polling locations also have not kept pace with the county’s growth. In 2022, the county’s 782 Election Day locations lagged all but one of its midterm and presidential general elections since 2010.
Reactionary measures, such as removing the election administrator or reducing polling locations, ignore the needs of voters whom the VRA was written to protect.
Positive, meaningful change takes time — and so does the political will to question single-story narratives and oppose changes that would take us backward.
Dr. Suzanne Pritzker is a professor who studies civic engagement at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work and co-author of the 2019 Take Action Houston report.
AJ Durrani is an experienced election judge and Founding Chair and State Board Treasurer of Houston in Action partner Emgage Texas, the Texas chapter of a national nonpartisan organization dedicated to registering, turning out and empowering Muslim voters.
Niloufar Hafizi is an attorney and the policy associate with Emgage Texas.