Texas AG Paxton disputes appointments of Harris County elections administrator

HOUSTON – Harris County broke the law after it created an independent office of election administration by not notifying the state within guidelines listed in Texas Election Code, according to a letter penned by Attorney General Ken Paxton.

The letter, addressed to Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan on Nov. 25, concludes the appointment of Isabel Longoria as the county’s first election administrator is “unlawful and null and void.”

The question of what to do was discussed during Tuesday’s meeting of the Harris County Commissioners Court; however, county commissioners did so in a closed session with county attorneys to discuss the county’s next steps.

Details of that executive session were not made available to KPRC 2. Moreover, a request for comment from the Harris County Attorney’s Office was not returned Tuesday.

Why does AG Paxton believe the law was broken?

The letter cites two statutes in the Texas Election Code as the reason why. They are listed in sections 31.031(d) and 31.032(c) of the Texas Election Code. Both deal with the timeline that counties are required to follow when notifying the Secretary of State about the creation of the position, as well as the appointment of an election administrator.

The letter states the following:

“Specifically, the Election Code states, “Not later than the third day after the date the order [establishing the office of county elections administrator] is adopted, the county clerk shall deliver a certified copy of the order to: (1) the secretary of state; and (2) each member of the county election commission.” TEX. ELEC. CODE § 31.031(d). The Election Code continues, “Not later than the third day after the date an administrator is appointed, the officer who presided at the meeting shall file a signed copy of the resolution or order with the county clerk. Not later than the third day after the date the copy is filed, the county clerk shall deliver a certified copy of the resolution or order to the secretary of state.” Id. § 31.032(c).”

The timeline and how the letter frames Harris County’s alleged wrongdoings

Commissioners Court voted on July 14 to create the position of election administrator. Previously, election responsibilities were split between the County Clerk and the County Tax Assessor-Collector. Commissioners’ 3-2 decision received bipartisan backlash.

While Texas Election Code states counties must notify the Secretary of State within three days, Paxton’s letter stated the state wasn’t notified about the move until July 28.

The letter states the following:

“As per Director Ingram’s letter, the Secretary of State received documentation from the Harris County Clerk’s office on July 28, 2020. The documentation included an order, ratified by the Harris County Commissioners Court on July 14, 2020, purportedly “establishing the Office of Election Administrator.”

Moreover, while Harris County commissioners appointed Isabel Longoria to the position on Oct. 30, the letter claims the county didn’t file a notice with the state until Nov. 20.

Thus, Paxton’s letter concludes, “the Harris County Office of Election Administrator does not exist,” writing those duties will “remain with the County Clerk and County Tax Assessor-Collector,” who previously split election responsibilities before commissioners voted along party lines in support of the appointed, non-elected, position.

Longoria, who worked in the office prior to her appointment helping to oversee the Nov. 3 election, was sworn on Nov. 18.

Sen. Paul Bettencourt said that should not have happened.

“The bottom line is in the nation’s third largest county, you can’t have people doing elections administration on the fly and you have to follow the election code,” said Sen. Bettencourt said, calling for the position to be rescinded and for county officials to start over in accordance with state law.

Deadline for a response

The letter gave county officials two weeks to get rid of the position or “the state will proceed with appropriate legal action to address her unlawful appointment.”

That deadline would be Dec. 9, although how the county would respond remained unclear Tuesday, following Commissioners’ executive session.

Longoria did address county commissioners during Tuesday’s meeting, however, to give an update on the Dec. 12 runoff elections. During that update, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo vowed to support Longoria on whatever she needed to run an election without errors.

Commissioners did not offer any public comment on Longoria’s future before the executive session.

Read the state’s letter below:

About the Author:

Emmy and Edward R. Murrow award-winning journalist. NOLA born and bred, though #HoustonStrong, with stops in Minnesota, New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut in along the way.