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Divided Against Itself – Bipartisan County Elections Administration

Here’s a simple question with a complicated answer:

Who conducts elections in Texas?

I ask this question in part because I got a call about a week ago from a reporter with the Victoria Advocate, asking about the January 17, 2017, resignation of George Matthews, the county’s first and only elections administrator.

Mr. Matthews had held the non-partisan county position since 1992, and (I say, based on having talked to George and his staff over the years) was highly regarded and well-liked by those he had worked with, including both the Victoria County Democratic Party Chair and the Victoria County Republican Party Chair.

Mr. Matthews’ resignation reminded people of the existence of a “County Elections Commission,” as described by Section 31.032 of the Texas Election Code, which surprised those county residents who had never heard of or knew about the existence of this governing body. That ignorance is understandable; the Victoria County Elections Commission probably last met in 1992 when it created the position of County Elections Administrator.

Do the County Elections Commissions within the counties have any direct responsibility for conducting elections?

The short answer to that question is … no.

County Elections Commissions have one tiny slice of legal responsibility (i.e., hiring or firing county elections administrators). That authority gets exercised once in a blue moon.

County Elections Commissions are consequently invisible and nearly powerless; they certainly don’t pay for the conducting of elections or supervise the conduct of those elections.

I think it’s interesting that county officials in Victoria have responded to this story by urging that the Victoria County Elections Commission will conduct quarterly meetings henceforth, presumably to preserve greater visibility and to ensure that voters won’t once again react with shock and surprise upon discovering that there is such a thing as a county elections commission.

So, who conducts elections?

In matters of voting (as with so much else) the State of Texas has adopted an aggressively decentralized approach. In one sense, the answer to the question is this:

  • Each political entity (whether that entity is a semi-autonomous political subdivision or a division of the State or federal government) conducts its own elections.

That answer has the ring of seeming authenticity. Every county, city, school district, water district, hospital district, community college district, special law district, municipal development district,  et cetera, has the formal legal responsibility for conducting its own elections, starting with the State of Texas and moving on down to the tiniest subdivision of local government.

But that answer doesn’t quite capture reality.

Let’s try again with this answer:

  • Each political entity is empowered to conduct elections, but practically speaking, there’s no way that thousands of tiny government entities (many of which don’t even have employees or permanent offices) can possibly handle the tedious and labor-intensive job of actually running their elections.So the equipment and election workers are provided by the counties. County workers print the ballots, program the voting machines, manage the early voting polling places and the Election Day precincts, count the votes and deliver the results to the tiny government entities.

Okay. So that pretty much answers our question right?

If someone asks, “who runs elections?” we’ll just say, “The counties.” And then we’re done, right?

Well, not quite.

Most people might be satisfied with this answer, but some people still want to know who specifically pays the invoices for the ballot programmers and hires the election workers. They ask,

“Who within the county government actually prepares the budget, leases the equipment, puts gas in the pick-up truck that delivers the voting booths, and keeps the lights on at the courthouse on Election Night?”

So here’s a more nuanced answer:

  • In Texas, elections are traditionally conducted by the County Clerk, while voter registration is administered by the County Tax Assessor/Collector (as a holdover duty of that office from the era of poll taxes). The costs associated with elections are largely paid out of general tax revenues, as budgeted and distributed by the County Commissioners’ Court.

Okay. Weird (what with the retro throwback reference to the collection of poll taxes), but okay.

Except … wait.

If elections are conducted by County Clerks (who are elected county officials) and if voter registration lists are created and maintained by Tax Assessor/Collectors (who are also elected county officials), then where do Election Administrators come into the mix?

  • County governments (i.e., the County Commissioners’ Courts) may choose to exercise statutory authority to create the position of County Elections Administrator. A County Elections Administrator is a paid county employee to whom is delegated the authority inherent in the offices of County Clerk and County Tax Assessor to (1) run elections, and (2) administer voter registrations for county voters. The County Elections Administrator is hired by the County Elections Commission and answerable to that (almost invisible, easily forgotten) government body. Meanwhile, the County Commissioners’ Court determines the budget, staffing, and all other decisions relating to the management of the county elections.

So in those counties with elections administrators, there is an interesting dynamic at work (and by “interesting,” I mean “complicated”).

The Elections Administrator is a special kind of county employee answerable to two separate deliberative bodies.

The Elections Administrator has to keep the County Elections Commission’s members happy in order not to be fired, but at the same time, the Elections Administrator has to keep the County Commissioners happy in order to have an office and a budget.

So … here are the members of those two bodies that a county Elections Administrator answers to:

  1. The County Judge  — the elected chief executive officer of the county, voting member and chair of the County Commissioners’ Court, and chair of the County Elections Commission.
  2. Four elected county commissioners, each representing a geographic portion of the county (Commissioners’ precincts 1–4) as voting members of the County Commissioners’ Court.
  3. The County Clerk — the elected records officer of the county; responsible for the minutes and records of the county court, managing all vital and property records of the county, voting member of the County Elections Commission.
  4. The County Tax Assessor — the elected financial officer of the county; responsible for the assessment and collection of county tax revenue; voting member of the County Elections Commission.
  5. The County Democratic Party Chair — chief executive officer of the county Democratic Party (if one exists); voting member of the County Elections Commission.
  6. The County Republican Party Chair — chief executive officer of the county Republican Party (if one exists); voting member of the County Elections Commission.

So that’s nine people with some measure of influence over the Elections Administrator. And one person in particular looms large. Because the County Judge sits on both bodies, that person has even greater influence over the process of creating the position and hiring the Elections Administrator.

While the Commissioners’ Court can’t directly hire or fire the Elections Administrator, the ability to control the existence of the position and the purse strings is all-important. If the Commissioners threaten to abolish the position or put the Elections Administrator in a broom closet, the message will come across loud and clear.

Why would the State authorize such an odd delegation of election authority by county government? I mean, why split the authority to hire the administrator from the authority to pay the administrator?

On the one hand, election administration is in many ways a complicated, thankless job. Elections are expensive (thanks in part to the many issues of legal compliance with state and federal laws) and emotionally fraught. From the perspective of an elected official like a county clerk, it’s often a relief to be able to delegate the management of dozens of local elections (as well as the high-profile, high-risk county, state, and federal elections) to a bipartisan “Switzerland” of blessed political neutrality.

On the other hand, election administration is very much about mucking about in the gears and levers of the political machine. While nobody wants to actually do the job of running elections, there are plenty of people who would like to preserve leverage over the administration of the election itself.

This Gordian Knot of conflicting county loyalties could be cut at a single stroke if the Legislature simply decreed that all counties would be required to have a non-partisan Elections Administrator, with all funding and administration supervised by the existing framework of county elections commissions.

But that legislative act would strip the county commissioners and county judges of an essential tool of budget control over elections administration. Therefore, it is unlikely that any such reform will be forthcoming.

 

 

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