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Texas voting laws target Harris County, which contains the blue-leaning Houston

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Texas, Republican lawmakers are moving to change the way elections are run in one county. Harris County is home to Houston, the state's most populous city and a Democratic stronghold. A couple of bills now on the desk of Republican Governor Greg Abbott would give state officials more power over elections in Harris County. Houston Public Media's Andrew Schneider has this report.

ANDREW SCHNEIDER, BYLINE: Harris County has struggled to conduct elections in recent years. Election Day 2022 was more of the same. Some polls in Democratic-leaning neighborhoods opened hours late. Others experienced malfunctioning machines. And then there were more than two dozen polling sites in Republican-leaning neighborhoods that were forced to temporarily shut down because they ran out of paper ballots. Terry Wheeler was a Republican election judge in Cypress, northwest of Houston.

TERRY WHEELER: I absolutely believe it was on purpose. I've never seen anything like this, the way that they blew us off over the phone and refused to get us paper ballots.

SCHNEIDER: Democrats largely swept the 2022 elections in Harris County. Houston Public Media conducted a five-month investigation of the county's management of those elections. It revealed numerous problems but no evidence that the county had deliberately undersupplied Republican polling sites, nor did it determine that the number of people turned away at those sites would have significantly affected the outcome of most contests. Nevertheless, Republicans at the state and county level decided Harris County's election system was broken and needed state intervention to fix it. State Senator Paul Bettencourt of Houston was the author of two key election bills related to his home county.

PAUL BETTENCOURT: Senate Bill 1750 basically returns elections in Harris County back to the elected officials, the county clerk and the tax assessor, like it was before the establishment of the now-defunct elections administrator office.

SCHNEIDER: Like many Republicans, Bettencourt holds the county's appointed elections administrator, Clifford Tatum, responsible for the problems of Election Day 2022. He says the elected officials would be more responsive to the voters. But then there's SB 1933.

BETTENCOURT: That basically grants the secretary of state oversight under specific circumstances for Harris County elections if necessary through a complaint process established in the bill.

SCHNEIDER: In other words, it would allow the state to override, even remove those same elected officials. Both bills were amended after being filed to target Harris County and Harris County alone. County Attorney Christian Menefee, a Democrat, said in an outdoor press conference that the two bills set a dangerous precedent in one of Texas' most diverse counties.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRISTIAN MENEFEE: We have a lot of elected officials, a lot of people who were voted into office to serve their community. Yet these bills target three Black elected officials in Harris County - the elections administrator, the county clerk and the tax assessor collector.

SCHNEIDER: Menefee said these bills won't go unchallenged.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MENEFEE: We're suing the state of Texas to protect Harris County, to protect Harris County residents, to protect our public officials and to stop the state from targeting us.

SCHNEIDER: The current elections administrator has taken steps to alleviate the problems that have plagued the county, but his job is going away, forcing the county clerk to scramble to oversee November's general election, when Houstonians will choose a new mayor. For NPR News, I'm Andrew Schneider in Houston.

(SOUNDBITE OF POST MALONE SONG, "CHEMICAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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