The Dallas Morning News
Ex-clerk stands by voting efforts
Harris County was targeted by the state in November for its experimental vote processes
AUSTIN — The former Harris County clerk who experimented with expanded voting programs during the November election says he has no regrets, even though those actions have led to a severe backlash from lawmakers who want to tighten voting rules in the state.
“I certainly don’t have any regrets because I was trying to make elections more accessible and safe for people in Harris County,” said Chris Hollins, a Democrat who stepped down as clerk following the election. “We don’t regret in any way making voting safer, more accessible to all of the voters regardless of your political party, regardless of what language you speak or what part of town you live in.”
As the top election official for the state’s most populous county, Hollins oversaw the county election division’s implementation of drive-through voting and 24-hour polling places, and he tried to increase voter turnout
by sending mail ballot applications to the county’s 2.4 million registered voters and setting up multiple sites where voters could drop off their mail ballots in person.
Hollins’ slew of actions drew the ire of Republican officials and activists, who sued the county with varying levels of success. The moves to send unsolicited mail ballot applications to all registered voters and set up multiple drop-off sites were blocked by state and federal courts, respectively.
A federal judge threw out a lawsuit that would have invalidated 127,000 ballots cast via drive-through voting, ruling that the plaintiffs did not have standing to sue. But he warned that if he had ruled on the case, he would have blocked drive-through voting on Election Day because the tents used for the process did not meet polling place requirements under state law.
A badge of honor
Now, the Gop-dominated Legislature is trying to block Harris County’s programs altogether, arguing that they are not allowed under the strict letter of Texas election law and are susceptible to voter fraud.
Each legislative chamber has its own omnibus bill to tighten voting laws in the state, as well as a slew of piecemeal bills that lawmakers hope to push through if certain provisions are cut out of the major bills.
Harris County has since moved its election administration from the clerk’s office, which is an elected position, to an appointed election administrator.
But Hollins wears the attacks on Harris County like a badge of honor, saying that he was proud to help more people vote and that Republican lawmakers would have gone after access to the ballot box anyway.
“It’s clear from what’s going on around the country that there’s an effort at the national level from Republicans to attack voting access,” he said, alluding to similar laws in Georgia and other states. “This is not about me or my policies. This is across the country. … [It’s] probably a cherry on top for them that they can take another shot at larger cities and counties that for multiple sessions they’ve made into public enemy number one.”
Texas Republicans dispute that. Senate Bill 7’s author, Republican
Bryan Hughes of Mineola, said during floor debate on his omnibus bill that he filed a similar one during the last legislative session — though he did target the county directly during the floor debate this session. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said he’s been fighting voter fraud since the state’s voter identification law passed in 2011.
And Hughes took pains to separate his legislation from a national GOP push to restrict voting.
“I’m not the one trying to make this a national debate,” Hughes said. “I’m talking about Texas.”
‘That’s the political process’
Elections experts say voter fraud is extremely rare and can swing only small local elections. An analysis by the Houston Chronicle found that the Texas attorney general’s Election Integrity Unit has found only a few dozen cases in its 15 years of existence.
At the national level, a voter fraud commission started by then-president Donald Trump disbanded after two meetings without making any findings, after he claimed without proof that millions of votes had been cast illegally in the 2016 election.
Still, it is clear that Harris County messed with the bull and is now getting the horns. Patrick said the Legislature was working to block policies
the county had created “out of thin air,” and lawmakers are using their priority election bills to block all of Harris’ experimental voting programs.
Hollins said GOP lawmakers are trying to rewrite the election code so their legal arguments from last fall are correct. None of what he did was prohibited, he said.
Republicans argue the opposite. They say that all counties must follow the same rules to keep state elections “uniform” and that anything not covered by the election code is not allowed.
In the run-up to the election, state courts faced open questions about the legality of Harris County’s programs, said David Coale, a Dallas appellate lawyer.
Courts eventually sided with the state about the election code’s limits, and Coale said lawmakers are trying to avoid future legal challenges and send a clear message to election administrators thinking about testing those limits. House Bill 6, by Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-deer Park, even specifies that the election code should be “strictly construed” to follow the letter of the law.
“They want that to be very clear. ‘No, you don’t, county clerk. Your job is to do X, Y, and Z and not get outside your lane,’” Coale said. “Are there politics
as part of that? Of course. That’s the political process.”
Push for stricter rules
The Legislature’s attempt to block Harris County’s programs in the election code will please proponents of stricter voting regulations, such as Chuck Devore, vice president of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which for years has pushed for stricter voting rules.
During the last election cycle, Devore said, Democrats tried to use the COVID-19 pandemic as an impetus to go to court to achieve a voting rights expansion they had been denied by the Legislature. Early on, the Texas Democratic Party sued the state to allow almost universal mail voting during the pandemic.
“You had a bunch of people who wanted to do these things anyway, and the COVID-19 pandemic gave them the perfect excuse,” said Devore, who served in the California State Assembly, that state’s equivalent of the Texas House.
Devore said the Legislature for years had refused to expand Texas voting laws. For more than a century, the Legislature had been wary of mail voting and had not even considered drive-through voting and the election security precautions that would be necessary, Devore said.
“All of these things we take for granted were violated by the expedient method that was clearly not legal per the election code and is now even more explicitly spelled out in some of this legislation considered now,” he said.
Hollins countered that voting under the programs was safe. For drivethrough voting, the former county clerk said, locations were more heavily staffed than other polling places to ensure security.
“We followed every single regulation, used the exact same machines, exact same policies, gave people the exact same instructions,” he said. “Any implication that there’s a greater risk of fraud because someone left their radio on is just ridiculous.”
‘These aren’t our voters’
Nearly 130,000 Harris County residents used drive-through voting, he said. An additional 15,000 used the county’s additional voting hours, including at the 24-hour polling locations, which helped workers such as doctors and nurses who had late shifts vote on their way home from work.
“This was the only time that was convenient to them and their busy schedule,” he said.
While Harris County helped more people vote, Hollins said, Republican lawmakers are trying to make it harder by raising the specter of voter fraud.
“The facts are that voter fraud does not exist at scale in this country,” he said. “Things like drive-through voting and 24-hour voting allowed more people to legally cast their ballots in Harris County. And that’s the problem for them.”
“They’re doing the math,” Hollins said, “and saying, ‘Those aren’t our voters.’”
Coale, the appellate lawyer, said lawmakers are trying to cement their victory. Hollins saw a loophole in the law and “tried to run a truck through it,” he said. Now, the Legislature is striking back.
“He’s right that there was room to argue. But [Harris County] lost and now [the lawmakers] just want to make it very clear,” Coale said. “The Legislature said, ‘Yeah, we won last time [in court] and now we’re really going to win.’”