Thus, taking voter registration out of the tax assessor/collector's office and elections management out of the county clerk's office and combining them into an elections administration department, under the supervision of an appointed county official, is the idea. And I like it.Harris County should consider appointing a bureaucrat to take over election duties from two elected officials who currently split the job, County Judge Ed Emmett said.
Emmett said he plans to ask Commissioners Court next month or in July to authorize a study of the costs and consequences of such a change.
Harris County's tax assessor-collector registers voters, a job that accompanied its duty to collect poll taxes. The county clerk runs elections. Both are elected.
Proponents of an elections czar say an appointee would be insulated from accusations and lawsuits alleging partisanship in carrying out the duties of the office.
In late 2008, the state Democratic Party said in a lawsuit that then-Tax Assessor Paul Bettencourt, a Republican, had illegally blocked thousands of people from registering to vote. The lawsuit was settled last fall. Bettencourt resigned in December 2008 to work in the private sector, just weeks after being elected to a third four-year term.
“The Democrats' lawsuit against the tax office and Paul Bettencourt's abrupt departure were game changers,” Emmett said. “It brought to everybody's attention that any time you have partisan offices running elections, you're just sort of leaving yourself open to lawsuits.”
The legacy of Quittencourt. He now runs a company that negotiates with the Harris County Appraisal District to get property taxes lowered for homeowners, marking time for his next electoral opportunity. Continuing with Chris Moran at the Chron ...
There was talk of tinkering with the county's elections machinery at the time. County Clerk Beverly Kaufman and newly appointed Tax Assessor-Collector Leo Vasquez opposed it. No formal proposal emerged.
“I was glad because I didn't want to lose a lot of my people,” Kaufman said.
But Kaufman is retiring, and her endorsed successor lost the March primary election for the nomination to succeed her. Vasquez lost his Republican primary.
That opens a window for proponents in which they can largely avoid the turf war over taking money, people and power from the tax assessor and clerk. Kaufman herself restarted talk of an administrator when she sent Emmett information about it a month ago. Now that she is leaving office she supports an elections administrator, she said.
“This is the ideal time, when you're not pulling the rug out from somebody that's already doing it,” she said.
No incumbent owns any turf to lose, but the challengers bidding to replace them are howling:
Democrat Ann Harris Bennett and Republican Stan Stanart, the November candidates to succeed Kaufman, both said they oppose an elections administrator.
“The voters don't have any way of removing (an appointee) when they're not happy with the performance,” Stanart said.
Democratic tax-assessor candidate Diane Trautman agreed with Stanart, though her released statement had a more partisan bent.
“Now that his hand-picked appointee for tax assessor and Beverly Kaufman's chosen successor for county clerk have been rejected by voters, Ed Emmett wants to change the rules,” Trautman said. “He wants to make sure that the next time he appoints someone to oversee elections processes in Harris County, that person cannot be removed by the voters.”
Republican tax-assessor candidate Don Sumners said, “It's not broken. We don't need to fix it.” He said he suspects the plan is retaliation for his past public criticism of Commissioners Court.
The partisan PDiddie would love for this crucial bit of democracy to fall under the control of Diane Trautman and Ann Harris Bennett. But the (perhaps utopian) idea of a non-partisan, unelected official has great appeal -- assuming it could actually happen.
Statewide, an administrator is used in 77 of the 254 counties, including Bexar, Dallas, El Paso and Tarrant. By state law, an election commission consisting of the county judge, the tax assessor, the county clerk and the heads of the local political parties hires and fires an elections administrator.
The leaders of the county's Republican and Democratic parties condemned the idea.
GOP Chairman Jared Woodfill said the party took a stand against an administrator two years ago. “It's another level of bureaucracy that we didn't need,” Woodfill said.
Democratic Chairman Gerry Birnberg said there is no party position on the matter but that he may take it up if the idea gets traction at Commissioners Court.
Charles Kuffner has more, including these questions:
Does this person have to be periodically re-appointed, or re-confirmed? Under what conditions can he or she be fired? How can you isolate this person from political pressure, yet ensure they are accountable?
All important considerations. I think my condition would be someone with prior metro county experience outside of Texas -- thus somewhat removed from the Republican Party of Texas' unique view on what constitutes free and fair elections. Yeah, I'm looking at you, Greg Abbott. Update: ... and so is Kuffner.