June 2, 2023

Houston Chronicle: GOP chair: If Harris County could run good elections, the state wouldn’t have to step in

Cindy Siegel

June 2, 2023

In 2020 I was elected to serve as the Harris County Republican Party Chairman. Part of my responsibility is overseeing the Republican primary elections and recruiting Republican election workers for general elections. Additionally, I serve as the only Republican on the Harris County Elections Commission.

Over the last two decades, I’ve been a voter, poll worker, election judge and candidate on the ballot, so I believed that I’d seen it all. Since becoming chairman, I quickly learned I hadn’t even come close. 

The Democrat-controlled Harris County Commissioners Court created the elections administrator’s office with a party-line vote in 2020. The creation of this office took the responsibility of running our elections away from two duly elected Democrats, the Harris County tax assessor-collector and the county clerk, giving it to the elections administrator, an appointed official with no accountability to the voters. 

Proponents of the office’s creation will argue that it was formed to take politics out of running our elections and professionalize the system as a whole. But unfortunately, after multiple election blunders, what has occurred is the exact opposite.

The first Harris County elections administrator was Isabel Longoria. Before taking on the job as the EA, she had a long history of working for Democratic organizations. She had never run an election — or even a polling location — before assuming this monumental role. So not only was she the exact opposite of non-partisan, she did not have the professional experience needed to run elections in the third largest county in the nation.

Longoria’s lack of experience became quickly apparent. The 2022 primary election she ran was riddled with issues, the most egregious being that 10,000 mail-in ballots were not counted on election night. They were discovered four days after the election. In the face of scrutiny from people from both parties, Longoria resigned.

The next and current elections administrator is Clifford Tatum. To put it lightly, the first election Tatum ran in Harris County was a disaster. During the November general election, polling locations opened hours late, voting machines were down, and most notably, many polling locations ran out of ballot paper, leading to an unknown number of voters left unable to cast their ballots.

Harris County has county-wide voting, so many observers have shrugged this off with the sentiment, “It’s no big deal because they could always go to another poll.”   

Tell that to Leila Perrin, who went to two different polling locations, both of which ran out of paper, resulting in her being unable to cast her vote before polls closed. Perrin is just one voter out of who knows how many who weren’t afforded their constitutional right to vote because the ballot paper ran out or the myriad of other issues on Nov. 8. 

During this legislative session, many poll workers and I testified multiple times before the Texas House and Senate, recounting our experiences regarding Harris County elections. That resulted in the creation and passage of Senate Bill 1750, which eliminates the position of Harris County elections administrator.

Democrats will exclaim that this bill is a Republican power grab to take over local elections. The part they conveniently leave out is that all this bill does is return accountability to voters by returning the responsibility of running elections to two duly elected officials, who, might I add, are Democrats.  

Yes, this legislation targets Harris County and only Harris County. But county leaders have been unwilling to do anything of consequence to ensure that Harris County voters can participate in elections that are run properly and lawfully. So the state Legislature stepped in. 

The line in the sand has to be drawn somewhere. Where some people are saying the state Legislature has overstepped, I’m saying that state lawmakers are correcting a wrong that county officials have refused to correct.

Last week County Attorney Christian Menefee, County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Commissioner Rodney Ellis and Mayor Sylvester Turner quickly held a press conference after the passage of SB 1750, announcing they will be using taxpayer funds to sue the state to stop the law from going into effect. They claim the bill is just partisan politics. 

How unfortunate they didn’t exhibit this same sense of urgency when voters were being consistently let down. They could have corrected the gross mismanagement of Harris County elections.