According to the Texas Attorney General’s Office, Harris County did not follow proper procedures in creating a new Office of Elections Administrator and subsequently appointing Isabel Longoria, a former staffer for State Senator Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston,) to fill that role.
In a letter sent to the Harris County Attorney last week, Special Counsel for the attorney general Kathleen Hunker writes that the county failed to follow at least two sections of Texas Election Code that require notifications of progress to be provided to the Secretary of State’s Office.
Consequently, both the creation of the office and the appointment of Longoria are null and void, and Hunker has instructed the county to rescind the appointment and take corrective action within 14 days. If the county fails to take action, the attorney general will seek legal remedies.
Last July, Democrats on the Harris County Commissioners Court overruled objections from both sides of the political aisle to create the new position for the administration of future election functions.
Previously, those duties were divided between two elected officials: the Tax-Assessor-Collector & Voter Registrar, and the County Clerk. Republicans in opposition to the move were joined by Ann Harris Bennet, a Democrat who was elected Tax Assessor-Collector & Voter Registrar in 2016. Bennet has stated that election officials should be more directly accountable to voters.
In laying out the process for establishing the new office, the commissioners court had agreed to first wait for a study that detailed the budget, facilities, equipment, and personnel needed to maintain the office. Although commissioners received and approved the study in August of 2020, the county failed to notify the secretary of state, and according to Hunker, the state only learned of the study’s existence and approval via news reports.
The second alleged violation took place after a five-member election commission voted 3 to 2 to appoint Longoria to the position on October 30. Ann Bennet and Harris County Republican Party Chairman Keith Nielsen voted against the appointment, while interim County Clerk Chris Hollins voted with County Judge Lina Hidalgo (D) and Democratic Party Chair Lillie Schecter to approve.
Although law requires the county to file appropriate documentation with the state within six days, Hunker says the secretary of state did not receive any communication regarding the appointment for more than two weeks.
In response to these violations, Director of Elections for the Secretary of State Keith Ingram sent a letter to the Harris County Clerk noting that a resolution approving Longoria’s appointment was only submitted on November 20, two days after Longoria assumed the office. Furthermore, Ingram writes that the resolution sent to him was not dated and only included signatures of three of the five members of the elections commission.
At the time of the commission vote approving Longoria, Hollins was still serving as the interim Harris County Clerk, but he stepped down from that role following the 2020 general election. Now newly elected Clerk Taneshia Hudspeth has assumed the clerk’s responsibilities, including a seat on the election commission.
Regarding the county’s snafu, state Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), who previously served as the Harris County Voter Registrar, told The Texan that the problem is indicative of the current administration’s rush to implement changes without regard to the law.
“This whole elections administration idea was done on the fly in the middle of a presidential election,” said Bettencourt. “As with the plan to mail out more than 2 million absentee ballot applications that was stopped by the [Texas] Supreme Court, they did not take the time to follow the law.”
County commissioners will take up the issue at tomorrow’s public meeting and may be required to restart the entire process of creating the office and selecting an appointed administrator. Although the makeup of the commissioners court remains unchanged, with Hudspeth joining the election commission the dynamic of that group may have shifted.
Hudspeth has a 15-year history of working in the county clerk’s office and with elections in particular.
Longoria, who unsuccessfully ran for Houston City Council last year, is slated to be paid $190,000 per year as the election administrator.
Earlier today, Nielsen resigned as chair of the county Republican Party, leaving Vice-Chair Kevin Fulton in charge until the party’s executive committee can choose a replacement who will then serve on the elections commission.
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