Texas' largest county, home to Houston, sues state over law ousting its election chief

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Harris County, Texas, filed a lawsuit Thursday to block a new state law overhauling its election administration, County Attorney Christian Menefee said.

The suit challenges a new state law that would eliminate the office of the county's elections administrator, which was created in 2020, and transfer the management of elections back to two local elected officials, the county tax assessor and county clerk. The county's elections administrator is a nonpartisan official appointed by the county's four commissioners, three of whom are Democrats.

The filing asks the court to temporarily block the law before it takes effect on Sept. 1 and allow the county’s elections administrator to continue overseeing elections and voter registration.

Menefee said the law, Senate Bill 1750, violates the Texas Constitution, which prohibits state lawmakers from writing local laws like this.

Transferring oversight to another office so close to early voting would be “chaotic," he added, noting that an amendment to delay implementation of the law until after the November election failed in the Legislature.

"The intent here was to blow up our elections processes,” he said in an interview. "You have to read this law in conjunction with another law that they passed, Senate Bill 1933, which effectively says that if the clerk were to have some issues with this election, which is kind of by design given the way that they've set up this timeline, the secretary of state could then come in and instrument in administrative oversight."

Senate Bill 1933 was signed into law last month.

Neither bill names Harris County specifically, instead applying certain provisions to counties with a notably large population — population counts that only Harris County meets.

“Elections for every public office in Texas—from Governor to Justice of the Peace to city council—are run by county governments,” the suit said, later adding that “this surgical targeting of Harris County’s elections operations was the express intention of the bill’s drafter, its House sponsor, and other legislators who supported it.”

In a tweet, Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Republican representing part of Harris County and the author of both laws, called the lawsuit "frivolous" and said abolishing the office of the election administrator "is about performance NOT politics."

Bettencourt previously served as the tax assessor-collector in Harris County.

"This bill is the result of election fiascos due to Elections Administrators and other appointed elected officials," Bettencourt said. "The fact that the first Harris County appointed [elections administrator] had to resign due to problems in the primary seems to escape any mention" in the lawsuit, he added.

Harris County, which includes the city of Houston, was plagued by election issues in last year’s midterm elections: The county’s March 2022 primary was marred by poll worker shortages and election machine problems. Officials were slow to report results and failed to count 10,000 mail ballots on Election Day. The elections administrator, Isabel Longoria, resigned.

In November, with a new elections chief, Clifford Tatum, on the job, paper shortages and late-opening polling sites continued to derail election operations. Republicans have alleged that criminality and election fraud could be at play.

Menefee said many counties have dealt with election issues and said the county’s 2020 election was “fantastic.”

If his legal challenge fails, Menefee said he worries Republicans across the country will consider similar legislation to target election administrators in Democratic strongholds in Republican-run states.

"You can bet every single dollar in your bank account that that playbook will be used throughout the country," he said.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com