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Houston-area county sues Texas over law that eliminates its elections administrator position

<i>Tamir Kalifa/The New York Times/Redux</i><br/>An election clerk sets up a voting machine on Election Day in Houston in November 2020.
Tamir Kalifa/The New York Times/Redux
An election clerk sets up a voting machine on Election Day in Houston in November 2020.

By Shania Shelton, CNN

(CNN) — Texas’ most populous county – Harris County, which is home to Houston – has filed a lawsuit against state officials challenging the constitutionality of a new law that eliminates the position of local elections administrator, Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee announced Thursday.

Menefee, a Democrat, said his team is seeking a court order to temporarily block the law, known as SB 1750, from going into effect on September 1, allowing the county’s elections administrator to continue to manage elections and voter registration until a final decision is reached in the case.

“Harris County is one of the most diverse counties in the state. We can’t and won’t allow legislators in Austin to target us to disrupt our elections and undermine our local officials,” Menefee said in a press release. “If people out there want to ignore the constitution and allow far-right lawmakers to go after us in this way, Harris County residents deserve to know. We’ll see what the courts say.”

Acting state Attorney General John Scott and Texas Secretary of State Jane Nelson, both Republicans, were named as defendants in the lawsuit.

Under the new law, the Harris County elections administrator’s duties will be transferred to the county tax assessor-collector and county clerk. The elections administrator, a position created in 2020, is appointed by the county’s election commission, which is Democratic-controlled. The county’s current tax assessor-collector and clerk are both Democrats.

The law is one of two measures enacted by state Republicans that target the elections process in Harris County. The other law, SB 1933, authorizes the Texas secretary of state – an appointee of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott – to “order administrative oversight” of a county elections office if, for instance, a complaint is filed or there’s cause to believe there’s a recurring pattern of problems involving election administration or voter registration.

“As soon as we’re done with this lawsuit, we can evaluate the other laws that need to be challenged, including Senate Bill 1933,” Menefee said at a news conference Thursday.

SB 1750 and SB 1933 apply to counties with a population of more than 3.5 million and 4 million people respectively – criteria met only by Harris County.

“The Texas Constitution prohibits the Legislature from passing laws that apply to only one county and can never apply to other counties. That’s exactly what Senate Bill 1750 is because it abolishes the elections administrator office in only Harris County,” Menefee said in the press release.

The Texas laws are a part of efforts by Republicans across the country to exert new control of election oversight ahead of 2024. The laws have angered Democrats and voting rights activists, who have accused the state GOP of plotting a “power grab” in an increasingly blue bastion. President Joe Biden won the county by double digits in 2020. And Democrat Beto O’Rourke won the county in November’s governor’s race, while losing statewide by double digits to Abbott.

GOP state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, the author of SB 1750, called Harris County’s lawsuit “frivolous.”

“My SB 1750 is about performance NOT politics!” Bettencourt tweeted Thursday. “This bill is the result of election fiascos due to Elections Administrators and other appointed elected officials. The fact that the first Harris County appointed EA had to resign due to problems in the primary seems to escape any mention by the County Attorney and Commissioners Court in this lawsuit.”

Harris County experienced election problems last year that caused the county’s former elections administrator, Isabel Longoria, to resign amid a mail-in ballot counting discrepancy during the March primary. The problems included damaged ballots that delayed the reporting of results and a vote discrepancy that left thousands of ballots out of the unofficial primary results. The county also experienced issues during the general election, including paper ballot shortages, machine malfunctions and delays in opening polling places.

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Fredreka Schouten contributed to this report.

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