Healthy and General

Harris County finally picks new elections administrator

3 min read

Harris County leaders on Tuesday selected the former head of Washington, D.C.’s board of elections to oversee voter registration and elections.

Clifford Tatum would become the county’s second chosen elections administrator since the office was created in 2020. His selection by the five-member Harris County Elections Commission was unanimous.

Tatum served as general counsel for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission from 2015 to 2019. He is the former executive director of the District of Columbia Board of Elections, and served as the interim director for the Georgia State Elections Division. Tatum is a graduate of Thomas M. Cooley Law School.

Tatum takes over as Harris County continues to face close scrutiny over the way elections have been run, particularly after this year’s March primaries, in which the elections administrator’s office was criticized for slow reporting of results and failed to include 10,000 ballots in the initial count on election night.

The position is a daunting job in a sprawling county with more than 2.5 million voters, an adversarial political climate with frequent election lawsuits, and a high rejection rate of nearly one out of five mail ballots in this year’s March primaries under the state’s new voting laws.

Beth Stevens, chief director of voting for Harris County, stepped in as the interim administrator July 1, the day outgoing administrator Isabel Longoria’s resignation went into effect. Stevens will hold the position until Tatum begins, which is likely to be in August.

Tatum faces a narrowing time frame to prepare for his first test: Early voting for the November election begins Oct. 24, less than three months after his likely start date.

The Harris County Election Commission is made up of five members: both local party chairs, the county clerk, the county judge and the county tax assessor-collector. Before Commissioners Court created the appointed election administrator in October 2020, the county clerk and tax assessor-collector managed elections in Harris County.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Tatum will move quickly to sign a lease and establish residency in Harris County.

“He recognizes that this is a very tight timeline. He’s been working on a 90-day plan. He’s going to be learning as much as he can. He won’t be elections administrator for at least another month, but he will be listening and learning and ready to hit the ground running,” Hidalgo said.

The commission considered candidates from a variety of backgrounds and had a tough time narrowing down the list, Hidalgo said. Tatum’s work as legal counsel at the U.S. Election Assistance Commission advising other jurisdictions on election issues and his experience at the Georgia Secretary of State’s office — a politicized environment, like Harris County — were two of the factors that set him apart, according to Hidalgo.

Added Hidalgo: “He is someone who can really understand the law and the implications of the laws, and he’s got that background. We can’t forget that there have been additional restrictions added in a state that arguably was already the hardest in which to register and the hardest in which to vote, so having somebody who can take those constraints, the logistical challenges and make things work, that’s what we’re going for here.”

“Mr. Tatum’s elections experience — combined with a background in information security and elections law — make him perfectly suited for the Elections Administrator position, and we look forward to welcoming him to Harris County,” Harris County Democratic Party Chair Odus Evbagharu said in a statement.

Cindy Siegel, Harris County GOP Chair stated: “Given the major failures of the March primary managed by the previous unqualified and inexperienced Elections Administrator, the Harris County GOP remained vigilant during the search process for this replacement.”

The meeting to select a final candidate was rescheduled twice due to a lack of quorum.

For more than three hours Tuesday, the commission held a closed-door executive session to interview two finalists for the position. Both were from outside Texas and had elections experience, officials had said.

Tatum’s appointment will be confirmed in a vote at a later meeting pending a background check and after he meets a residency requirement to become a voter under the Texas Election Code.

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