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Texas Governor Greg Abbott recently signed two widely controversial and legally contested bills that target elections administration in Harris County.
Despite attempts to white-wash history, we can never forget the unfortunate challenges that African American men and women had to face during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
African Americans were physically assaulted, bitten by dogs, sprayed with water hoses, arrested, and even killed, as part of an unwavering quest to vote without hinderance and to be able to cast a vote without being oppressed and disenfranchised by those with the power to deny that right.
Every major legislative decision in the history of our nation has had an impact on the African American community—whether in a good or a bad way.
Each and every one of those legislative decisions have been made by elected or appointed officials who have been given the legal power to create and enact the laws that impact our communities. Many of these laws are passed by elected officials we choose to vote for, or by those we choose not to vote for. Either way, they have been given the power to do what they do.
Fast forward to 2023, and the African American community finds itself still fighting against discriminatory laws that are having a disparate impact against African Americans at practically every level of government.
Governor Abbott signs bill targeting Harris County
Two controversial bills that Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott recently signed into law this month are examples of that, and will significantly change the way elections in Harris County—the largest county in the state of Texas—are administered and controlled.
Effective September 1st, Senate Bill 1750 (SB1750) will transfer the responsibilities, powers, and duties of a county elections administrator in counties that have a total population of more than 3.5 million to the county clerk and the county tax assessor-collector in that county.
As you may recall, Harris County officials created the Elections Administration Office in November 2020. That decision essentially combined the election-related duties previously held respectively by the Harris County Clerk (Teneshia Hudspeth) and the Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector (Ann Harris Bennett) into one consolidated role.
SB1750, in essence, would eliminate that position, currently held by Clifford Tatum. The legislation will also return those election-related responsibilities, duties, and powers back to the Harris County Clerk (Hudspeth) and the Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector (Harris Bennett). The law will only apply to Harris County because they are the only county in the state of Texas with a population that exceeds 3.5 million.
Gov. signs law taking over local elections
The other recently signed legislation that has many people scratching their heads and feeling deeply concerned could potentially change the outcome of Harris County elections for years to come, if the legislation goes into effect and is allowed to stand.
Effective September 1st, Senate Bill 1933 (SB1933) will give the Texas Secretary of State’s office the unchecked power to take over any elections where the population that is specified in the legislation would only apply to Harris County.
According to the verbiage in the bill, if anyone who participated in an election in Harris County doesn’t like the outcome and lodges a complaint, such as a political candidate, voter, or political party chair, and if the Texas Secretary of State has “good cause to believe that a recurring pattern of problems with election administration or voter registration exists in the county,” they can take over the elections and even order a new election.
For instance, the Texas Secretary of State can order a new election in Harris County if they believe that more than 2 percent of polling places in the county ran out of ballot paper for more than one hour. They will also have the power to approve or reject any instituted election policy or procedure and fire election officials at the end of an oversight period they conduct.
It is clear, especially after reading the original bill that was introduced that would have been applicable to all Texas counties, that this was clearly an attempt by the legislature and Governor Abbott to target Harris County, which is a Democratic juggernaut and heavily populated with African Americans and people of color.
Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee tells the Forward Times that both bills (SB1750 and SB1933) are completely unconstitutional, and has filed a lawsuit against the state, claiming that state law forbids the state of Texas to pass any legislation that specifically targets one county.
“The Texas Constitution bars the legislature from passing local or special laws targeting certain jurisdictions (including counties) and subject matters (including elections),” Menefee tells the Forward Times. “That’s exactly what happened with these laws—the legislature is targeting Harris County and its elections officials.”
As Harris County Attorney, Menefee serves as the lawyer for the county and all of its elected and appointed officials. He represents them in court, and the law gives him the power to sue the state on behalf of Harris County, as authorized by the Harris County Commissioners Court.
When asked why these two bills are bad for Harris County and why they are targeting Harris County solely, Menefee states that the Republican legislators who pushed this bill through are trying to sow chaos in Harris County elections because Republicans cannot win elections in Harris County.
“Our county leaders look different than them and see the world differently than they do,” says Menefee. “In 2020, when then-County Clerk Chris Hollins brought us drive-thru voting and 24-hour voting, the state took us to court to stop it. When the county created the elections administrator office, Republican leaders in Austin called for it to be abolished. In every election we’ve run in this county, since Democratic leadership took over, they’ve criticized election officials and called into question election processes. And now, losing Republican candidates have sued to overturn election results.”
Governor Abbott targets Black elected officials
Menefee states that everyone in Harris County should be concerned because the legislation is about targeting Harris County officials and has a clear racial component.
“These two laws impact only three officials in the entire state of Texas, and all three of them are Black. That is not a coincidence,” says Menefee. “First, they abolish our elections administrator office, then they allow the state to micromanage the two Black women who will run elections and voter registration. If we do not stop the state in their tracks, they will continue to push the envelope and work against local elections.”
Menefee is encouraging everyone in Harris County to make sure their neighbors know about the lawsuit, and to make sure their respective state senator and state representative know that they are in support of the lawsuit that has been filed against the state.
Few Democrats supported the bills
The author of both bills, Sen. Paul Bettencourt released a statement stating: “These bills received bipartisan votes during their passage. It’s about performance, not politics.”
If you look at what bipartisan looks like, it doesn’t reflect Harris County demographics, especially the African American community.
Relative to SB 1933, only five Democrats (Rep. Elizabeth “Liz” Campos, Rep. Ryan Guillen, Rep. Eddie Morales Jr., Rep. Claudia Ordaz, and Rep. Tracy O. King) out of the 150 total members of the Texas House supported the legislation, and no Democrats out of the 31 total members in the Texas Senate supported SB1933.
Relative to SB1750, only two Democrats (Rep. Robert “Bobby” D. Guerra and Rep. Ryan Guillen) in the Texas House supported the legislation, and only one Democrat (Sen. Cesar Blanco) in the Texas Senate supported SB1750.
It should be noted that no Democratic African American elected officials in the Texas House and the Texas Senate supported this legislation, and no Democratic members from the surrounding counties of Harris County supported the legislation either.