Republicans Are Trying to Seize Control Over Voting in Texas’ Largest Democratic County

The GOP-controlled legislature just passed bills to oust local election officials in Houston and neighboring cities.

Speaker of the House Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, during session in Austin, Texas, Jan. 18, 2023.Eric Gay/AP

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The Texas legislature passed a series of bills on Monday that amounted to a sweeping power grab giving Republicans more control over how elections are run and administered in the state’s most populous Democratic county, which includes the city of Houston and is home to nearly 5 million people.

One bill would allow the secretary of state, who is appointed by the state’s Republican governor, Greg Abbott, to remove local election officials for “good cause” based on a “recurring pattern of problems with election administration.” Under SB 1933, a person involved in the election process could submit a complaint about a county election office to the secretary of state’s office, which could then usurp the power of local officials for something as minor as a voting machine malfunction that prevents someone from casting a ballot. There would be no opportunity for the county to challenge or appeal the decision. The bill applies solely to “large urban areas” with 4 million people or more. Only Houston’s Harris County, the state’s largest blue county, falls into that category.  

A second bill, SB 1750, abolishes the position of election administrator in counties with a population of more than 3.5 million. Once again, only Harris County fits that definition. 

Voting rights experts said it was unprecedented for the legislature to single out one county against its wishes—let alone the third largest county in the country, which covers an area that is larger than Rhode Island—and could open the door to broader power grabs by Republicans. “If they can do this in Houston, they can do it in Austin, they can do it in Dallas,” says Emily Eby French, a voting rights attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project. “Targeting one official in one county is a horrible precedent to set.”

Harris County has become the epicenter for what Common Cause Texas calls the “Texas Edition of the Big Lie.” After losing close elections in the county in 2022, Republicans seized on reports of a shortage of paper ballots at some polling places to argue that Democrats intentionally tried to disenfranchise Republican voters. They claimed, based on local news reporting, that 121 of the county’s 782 polling locations ran out of paper ballots in disproportionately Republican areas. In fact, subsequent reporting by the Houston Chronicle found that only 20 polling places ran out of paper ballots and the shortages were only slightly more likely to occur in areas that favored Donald Trump over Joe Biden in 2020. There was no evidence that the problems swung any close elections.

Nonetheless, Republicans continued to exaggerate the scope of voting issues in Harris County to build support for abolishing the election administrator position and transferring that authority to the county clerk and tax assessor, offices that are presently held by Democrats but where Republicans believe they can exert more influence. The unfounded claims also laid the groundwork for the legislation passed Monday giving the secretary of state power to potentially take over election operations there. The bill initially applied to all counties in the state, but was amended on the House floor to apply only to Harris County. (The Texas Senate passed a bill a few weeks ago that would have allowed the secretary of state to order new elections if 2 percent of polling places ran out of paper ballots, but the House failed to take it up.)

During the legislative debate, Republicans displayed a stunning lack of knowledge about how Harris County elections actually operate. When asked if he knew who the county election administrator was, the lead GOP sponsor of the bill in the Texas House, State Rep. Briscoe Cain, said he did not.

The real purpose of the bills, Democrats and voting rights advocates say, is to give Republicans more sway over how elections are conducted in large and diverse urban areas that are trending away from the GOP. Harris County, where a majority of residents are people of color, was once reliably Republican, but it favored Biden by 13 points in the last presidential election. “Now that Republicans are losing elections in large counties, they want to take over those election offices or strong arm those officials,” says Rose Clouston, an adviser to the Texas Democratic Party on voting rights issues.

The bills must be approved once more by the state House and reconciled with the state Senate’s versions before they are sent to Gov. Abbott. 

The measures add to the restrictions Texas Republicans have placed on voting in recent years. Two years ago, the legislature enacted a sweeping voter suppression bill that eliminated the voting methods used by Harris County to increase voter participation in 2020, such as 24-hour voting sites, drive-thru polling places, and sending mail ballot applications to voters.

After Texas Republicans limited voting access in 2021, the new bills seek to further subvert fair election outcomes. “It’s a really intentional form of partisan takeovers of local election offices,” says Katya Ehresman, voting rights program manager for Common Cause Texas.

And despite their oft-stated concern about preventing voter fraud, Republicans passed a third bill on Monday that will allow Texas to become the ninth state to withdraw from the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), a multistate compact that seeks to keep voter rolls clean and accurate by comparing voter registration data among states. Election deniers have falsely claimed that the organization is controlled by George Soros and have criticized the organization’s efforts to sign up unregistered voters. 

Texas is already the most difficult state in the country to vote in. Unlike 40 states, it has no online voter registration, and an individual must be deputized by the state every election cycle to register voters, which makes large-scale voter registration drives nearly impossible. Under the state’s voter ID law, a handgun permit is an acceptable form of identification but a student ID is not. Only voters who are over 65, out of town during the election, or have a physical condition that prevents them from going to the polls can cast a ballot by mail.

These laws explain why Texas ranks near the bottom in voter turnout every election cycle—and why the state’s changing demographics have yet to lead to a shift in political power in a red state that should be a political battleground.

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