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Texas Senate passes bill to allow secretary of state to overturn Harris County elections

The bill targets the state's largest county, which has become more Democratic in recent years, over problems that arose during last year's election.
People early vote in Houston
People vote early in Houston in the 2020 election. Harris County has come under fire from Republican legislators over the administration of last year's election.Julia Benarrous / AFP via Getty Images file

The Texas Legislature is advancing a bill that would allow the secretary of state to redo elections in Harris County, where a number of Democratic candidates posted strong midterm election results and which has been dogged by GOP claims of election mismanagement.

The Republican-controlled Senate passed the bill Tuesday and sent it to the state House. If it is enacted, it would allow the secretary of state to toss out election results in the state's largest county and call a new vote if there is "good cause" to believe that at least 2% of polling places ran out of usable ballots during voting hours.

The bill would apply only to counties with populations greater than 2.7 million, effectively singling out Harris County, which is home to Houston and has by far the largest population in the state, at nearly 5 million. In recent decades, Harris County has become more Democratic.

Last year, the Harris County Republican Party sued the county and Clifford Tatum, its election administrator, over the administration of last year's election, and numerous Republicans also challenged their losses and called for the election to be redone. During the election, a legal battle arose over whether to extend voting hours at Harris County’s polling places after several locations had issues, including ballot paper shortages and late openings.

In an assessment of the 2022 midterms, the Harris County Election Administration Office preliminarily could not conclude whether paper shortages resulted in voters’ being turned away.

Tatum’s office replied to a request for comment with a fact sheet listing upgrades for future elections and examples of issues with elections before the county created an election administrator role.

Republican state Sen. Mayes Middleton, a co-sponsor of the bill, said the measure would provide a remedy for "systemic ballot paper denial."

"We had 253 counties that had no issues, really, with ballot paper. We had one that did," Middleton said Monday in a speech on the Senate floor. "This is an important accountability tool."

State Sen. Borris Miles, a Democrat who represents part of Harris County, acknowledged that the county had problems with election administration but said some of the claims of mismanagement were “more conspiracy than fact.”

State Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, also a Democrat, said in criticizing the GOP bill that redoing an election could cost tens of millions of dollars.

"I completely agree that no polling place should run out of paper," Eckhardt said. "But the bill has no requirement that the blunder must have had, or even probably had, any effect on the outcome of the election."

A Texas secretary of state’s office audit of the 2020 election, which was managed by Tatum’s predecessor and took place at the height of the Covid pandemic, found that Harris County had "very serious issues" in its handling of electronic media. But it did not find evidence of fraud or intentional disenfranchisement.

Allegations of election mismanagement and fraud from conservative candidates and their supporters have become increasingly common in the wake of former President Donald Trump's baseless claims of voter fraud over his 2020 election loss.

Mimi Marziani, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law and a former president of the Texas Civil Rights Project, a nonprofit group that advocates for voter rights, said the bill was a "partisan power grab" over Harris County.

"It gives an unelected person the authority, without any procedural guardrails, to overturn an election when there are paper ballot issues," Marziani said. "It's very easy to see how this vast authority could be abused in a way that's profoundly undemocratic."

She added that there are existing mechanisms to address election errors, including recount litigation.