Now that I’m belatedly putting away the eggnog and packing up the ornaments, let’s see what’s shaking in Texas elections.
1. Punishment and Retribution, or the Relationships of Election Administrators and County Commissioners
Having talked to Dan Teed many times over the years, I know that he is a cautious and fastidious elections administrator; he was the elections administrator for Harrison County for a time, and then moved on to work in the challenging position of elections administrator for Waller County. His successor in Harrison County (Becky Dotson) was new to the job, and didn’t last – Harrison County was the last county to report vote totals following the November 2014 election, and had been subject to state criticism for its tardy distribution of a dozen military ballots; these problems led to Ms. Dotson being fired about a month after the election.
Her story is sad, complicated, messy, and an all-too-common one. Her downfall was depressingly predictable, and was grounded in the complexity of the job she was asked to do, her lack of experience, and the apparent lack of automation available to her. Ultimately, she was bested by the legal obligation to mail ballots out to military and oversees voters no later than 45 days before the election.
For several decades now, the Texas Election Code has authorized the creation of a salaried county position of “elections administrator.” Chapter 31, Subchapter B, Texas Election Code (Sections 31.031 et seq.). (Those who are curious about all of the ins and outs of county election administration should also look at Subchapters C, D, E, and F of Chapter 31, all of Chapter 32, and, well, to be honest, pretty much everything else in the Texas Election Code and Title 1, Part 4, Chapter 81 of the Texas Administrative Code).
The law solves a number of problems caused by the more traditional use of county clerks (who are elected in partisan contests) as the chief elections officers responsible for conducting county elections.
What the legislation attempts to achieve is insulation of the county elections officer from partisan pressure. This is done in part through an elaborate structure of divided supervisory responsibility for the hiring and termination of election officers – the elections administrator is hired by a county elections commission composed of the county clerk, county tax assessor, county judge, and the chairs of the county Republican and Democratic parties.
Meanwhile, the funding and staffing of the office is resolved by the debate and actions of the county commissioners.
To survive and continue to hold a county job, a county elections administrator must placate (1) the county judge, who presides over both the county commissioners and the county elections commission, (2) at least a majority of the county commissioners, and (3) at least one other member of the county elections commission. If this goal isn’t met, the administrator may either be dismissed by the county elections commission, or (more creatively) the commissioners’ court may either strip the office of funding, or abolish the position altogether.
In contrast, a county clerk only needs to win a primary and general election every four years.
In the end, it’s disingenuous to treat any election workers as if they are somehow magically immune to intense political pressure or partisanship. It would be more accurate to say that county election administrators face a different and potentially more complicated set of political pressures than the political pressures faced by elected county officials.
Looking beyond the specifics of Ms. Dotson’s termination, one is naturally inclined to ask whether the sins of embattled or terminated county election administrators (a group that includes Susan Wilson and Robert Mendoza for Ector County, fired several years ago, Rick Barron (Williamson County), who was under considerable pressure from Republican county commissioners, or Glenda Denton of Rockwall County) were by any stretch more damning than the glaring problems of election management in places like Harris County, where Stan Stanart won reelection for a new four-year term that began on January 1. I would argue that Mr. Stanart enjoys far greater administrative leeway than do his election administrator counterparts.