Harris County Judge Ed Emmett thinks we could use a dedicated elections supervisor.
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.”
First things first: Can we please drop the tiresome “Czar” appellation for anything that requires a person in charge of it? Thanks.
Now then. I’m willing to hear what Judge Emmett has to say. Certainly, there’s a case to be made for combining the election-related businesses of the Tax Assessor and County Clerk’s offices, either in one of them – County Clerk would be the logical choice – or in its own separate office. No elected official ever wants to cede power, so I give Emmett credit for bringing it up at a time when both the County Clerk and the Tax Assessor are on their way out. If there ever was a time to discuss this, now is that time.
I want to caution against the idea that you can somehow divorce the function of running elections, including voter registration, from the partisan political process. It’s the same thing with electing judges: We may take this away from the voters, but in doing so we’d be handing it to people who were elected by the voters in partisan elections and who are subject to partisan pressures as part of their jobs. I believe it would be harder to hold those who made the appointment responsible for a bad choice, because this is only one aspect of their job, than it would be to hold the person doing the job responsible. The best you can hope for under any scenario is for the person or persons responsible to be dedicated, impartial professionals, and the best way to have that is for an informed and engaged electorate to demand it and enforce it at the ballot box, regardless of who they enforce it on. Your guess is as good as mine for how to achieve that.
Finally, I’ve seen a lot of discussion about this idea on Carl Whitmarsh’s mailing list, with several people chiming in to say that various other counties have non-partisan, appointed elections administrators, and their experience has generally been very good. I’m glad to hear that, and I would certainly hope that if Harris County follows this path that we have a similar experience. Having the county chairs of both the Democratic and Republican parties involved in the selection process seems to help. The question is what happens if the experience isn’t good. 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? These are some of the things I’ll be looking for when the commission Judge Emmett wants the Court to study this idea presents its plan.