• Wed. Oct 4th, 2023


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Texas Passes Bills Targeting Elections in Democratic Stronghold

The bills’ passage was the culmination of a Republican effort to increase oversight of voting in Harris County, which includes Houston.

The Texas Legislature gave final approval on Sunday to a new round of voting bills to increase penalties for illegal voting and expand state oversight of local elections specifically in Harris County, which includes Houston, where Democrats have become dominant.

The measures, which now head to Gov. Greg Abbott to sign, include a bill that would upend elections in Houston a few months before the city’s mayoral race in November by forcing the county to change how it runs elections and return to a previous system.

That bill, known as Senate Bill 1750, was crafted so that it applies only to Harris County. So was another bill, Senate Bill 1933, that would give broad new powers to the secretary of state, appointed by the governor, to direct how elections are run in the county if there are complaints and to petition a court to replace the top election officials when deemed necessary.

Election workers organized paperwork from each polling location at NRG Arena in Houston, Texas, in November.
Annie Mulligan for The New York Times

Harris County, the state’s most populous county, has become a reliable Democratic stronghold.

The passage of the bills marked the culmination of a monthslong effort by Texas Republicans to contest some of that dominance. They highlighted Election Day problems last November in Harris County as justification for challenging results that favored Democrats and call into question the way the Democratic-led county runs its elections.

“It was a stated intention of some of the folks in the Legislature to take action against Harris County election administration,” said Daniel Griffith, the senior policy director at Secure Democracy USA, a nonpartisan organization focused on elections and voter access.

Senate Bill 1750 eliminates the appointed position of elections administrator, which has been in place in Harris County only since late 2020. If the bill becomes law with the governor’s signature, the county must return to its previous system of running elections, in which the county clerk and the county tax collector-assessor split responsibilities. Both positions are currently occupied by elected Democrats.

“The Legislature’s support for S.B. 1750 and S.B. 1933 is because Harris County is not too big to fail, but too big to ignore,” State Senator Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican and sponsor of several election bills, said in a statement. “The public’s trust in elections in Harris County must be restored.”

Another bill, Senate Bill 1070, removes Texas from an interstate system for crosschecking voter registration information run by a nonprofit, the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC. The system has been the target of conservative attacks in several states in part because it requires states using it to also conduct voter outreach when new voters move in from out of state. The Texas measure bars the state from entering into any crosschecking system that requires voter outreach.

Yet another bill, House Bill 1243, increases the penalty for illegal voting from a misdemeanor to a felony.

The measures that passed were opposed by Democratic representatives and voting rights groups. But advocates of greater access to the polls were relieved that other, more restrictive measures put forward and passed in the State Senate — including one that would have required voters to use their assigned polling place instead of being able to vote anywhere in the county, and another that would have created a system for the state to order new elections under certain circumstances in Harris County — failed in the Texas House.

“Those haven’t moved and that’s definitely a good thing,” Mr. Griffith said.

The bills invite new scrutiny of elections, especially in Harris County, where officials would be expected to revamp their system just months before important elections.

Under the new legislation, future complaints about the functioning of elections in the Democratic-run county could create the real possibility that the secretary of state, a former Republican state senator, could step in and oversee elections as early as next year, as the county votes for president.

The bills, said Mayor Sylvester Turner of Houston, “create more problems than they allegedly solve.”

Top officials in Harris County have vowed to go to court to challenge both measures aimed at the county once the laws go into effect (Sept. 1, if the governor signs), meaning the fight over elections in the county remains far from over.