Texas Senate approves election records legislation

Citing Harris County’s refusal to share public records related to the November 2022 elections, the Texas Senate has passed a measure removing an exception to compliance with the Texas Public Information Act (TPIA).

While TPIA allows government entities to seek an exception to requests for public records if such records are related to litigation, Senate Bill (SB) 1910, authored by Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) and co-authored by Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe), would remove that exception for information “related to a general, primary, or special election.”

“One of the most frustrating aspects of the election fiasco in Harris County is the refusal of Elections Administrator Clifford Tatum and County Judge Lina Hidalgo to answer questions about what went wrong on November 8th,” Bettencourt said in a statement.

Harris County’s management of the 2022 elections has drawn a criminal investigation, multiple lawsuits, and 21 election contests still pending in state district court. In addition to delayed openings and equipment malfunctions, allegedly as many as 121 voting locations, primarily in the northern portions of the county, were not given sufficient supplies of ballot paper on Election Day. As a result, a yet unknown number of voter centers were unable to process voters on Election Day.

Following the election, investigative reporter Wayne Dolcefino filed multiple open records requests seeking detailed phone records for Harris County Elections Administrator Clifford Tatum; all email communications sent or received by Tatum on Election Day; and all email communications with the office of Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis (Pct. 1) since August 1, 2022.

Dolcefino also sought election machine maintenance and testing documentation, the amount of ballot paper provided to each precinct, the number of voters who voted at each precinct in previous elections, written complaints filed, and communications regarding the secretary of state’s audit of elections.

While partially complying, Harris County sought an exception from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to withhold much of the information, invoking the litigation exception.

After multiple attempts to obtain information, Dolcefino and Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale filed a lawsuit in February to force the county to release the records. The following month, Paxton issued a ruling on at least one set of Dolcefino’s requests ordering the county to comply.

During committee testimony in support of SB 1910, Chuck DeVore of the Texas Public Policy Foundation noted that there was an urgency to the release of elections records.

“It’s very important to get as much information as possible to the parties that are interested in a fair and secure election,” said DeVore. “Interested in the results, knowing who’s won or who lost, and this I believe is a common sense bill that would allow for more information to get out to the public.”

No one testified against SB 1910 in committee, and the measure passed on the Senate floor Tuesday in a 25 to 6 vote that included support from three Democrats.

McIngvale praised Bettencourt for his work on election record transparency, saying, “Paul is shining light on Texas elections so Texas elections can forever be open & transparent for all Texans.”

Although Tatum has repeatedly appeared at the Harris County Commissioners Court to provide updates and reports, the county attorney’s office advised him to stop providing information due to the pending litigation.

Tatum had been scheduled to give an update to the Harris County Elections Commission on Wednesday, but County Clerk Teneshia Hudspeth motioned to table the agenda items again, citing the litigation exception. Hidalgo, along with Tax Assessor-Collector Ann Harris Bennett and Harris County Democratic Party Chair Mike Doyle, voted to block Tatum’s comments. Only Harris County Republican Party Chair Cindy Siegel voted against the motion.

During the meeting, Dolcefino provided comments to the Elections Commission urging greater transparency. When he attempted to record Tatum’s presentation of plans for the upcoming elections in May 2023, Hidalgo accused Dolcefino of engaging in “Trump-style” tactics and asked bailiffs to move him away from Tatum.

If approved by the House, SB 1910 will not apply to other government entities that often invoke exceptions for litigation or attorney-client privilege.

Although last year the Attorney General’s Office ruled that the City of Kemah must release an investigative report on Police Chief Holland Jones, the city filed suit against Paxton in an effort to prevent the release of the report.

Attorney Mark McCaig also filed suit against the Harris County Attorney’s office over records he sought in relation to payments made to state Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston) for work related to opioid litigation.

State courts including the Supreme Court of Texas have recently weighed in on TPIA controversies, but Texas code includes multiple exceptions for compliance. Those seeking records may file complaints with the Texas Attorney General’s Office or in some cases criminal complaints with the local district attorney’s office.
Dan Butcher

Dan Butcher is the editor and publisher of High Plains Pundit. Dan is also the host of the popular High Plains Pundit Podcast.

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