The departure of Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt has opened the door for some discussion of whether his successor should inherit the job of maintaining Harris County's voter rolls, a duty assigned to that office in the days of Jim Crow poll taxes.
State law allows Commissioners Court to assign that responsibility to the county clerk, who already conducts elections and counts the votes, as long as the county clerk and the tax assessor-collector sign off on the plan. The court also can create an independent elections administration office to handle all election-related duties.
Seventy-three of Texas' 254 counties have established separate elections offices, including every large, urban county but Harris and Travis. Nineteen other counties have assigned the voter registration role to the county clerk.
Earlier this month, Republican precinct chairman Jim Harding proposed moving the rolls to the County Clerk's Office, saying that would "streamline all of the voter activity from initial registration to final certification of an election under county clerk leadership."
Republican County Judge Ed Emmett and Democratic Commissioners Sylvia Garcia and El Franco Lee have said the idea of moving the rolls is worth discussing, though little consensus has emerged over how that should be done.
Emmett said he would be open to shifting those duties to the county clerk but opposed the creation of a new elections administration office. Garcia said she prefers the idea of an elections administrator because that person would be prohibited by law from making political contributions or endorsing candidates or ballot measures. Lee said he is not sure either change would do enough to make the voter registration process more transparent and user-friendly.
So Commissioner Garcia -- who abandoned her support of Diane Trautman for tax assessor/collector and voted for Leo Vasquez last week -- and Commissioner Lee are for the idea; Judge Emmett is lukewarm, and most of the rest of the parties involved are against it: Clerk Kaufman, TA/C Vasquez, and Commissioner Radack ...
For her part, Republican County Clerk Beverly Kaufman said she is not interested in adding voter registration to her many responsibilities. And newly appointed Tax Assessor-Collector Leo Vasquez said he believes the current system is very efficient.
"Why create yet another organization, another layer of bureaucracy in Harris County government?" Vasquez said of the elections administrator idea. "It just doesn't make sense."
The idea could also face significant opposition from Republican Commissioner Steve Radack, who said he would not vote for an elections administrator under any circumstance. He said the the current system offers checks and balances while allowing voters to judge whether the tax assessor-collector and the county clerk are doing a good job.
"I think that's good and healthy for the electoral process," he said.
An elections administrator would be appointed by a county elections commission composed of the county judge, the tax assessor-collector, the county clerk and the chairmen of both political parties.
Firing the administrator would take a four-fifths vote of the county elections commission and a majority vote of Commissioners Court.
Oh yeah, there's Federal-Indictment-Any-Day-Now Eversole:
Republican Commissioner Jerry Eversole declined to comment, saying he would make his opinion known if the topic came up during a court meeting.
Don't expect to see anything come of this entirely worthwhile proposal.