Harris County, the most populous county in Texas, has hired a new administrator to oversee its elections, which have been plagued with problems since Democrats took control of the county government in 2018.
Clifford Tatum will replace disgraced Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria, an inexperienced political appointee who was forced to resign over a series of mistakes in the March 1 primaries that some called the “worst election fiasco in Texas history.”
Unlike his predecessor, Tatum comes to the job with some experience in election management, although none in Texas and little of it hands-on.
Who Is Clifford Tatum?
Tatum is an elections consultant and attorney who heads ECLS Consulting, a D.C.-based company specializing in elections, cybersecurity, and legal services.
From 2015 to 2019, Tatum served as general counsel to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, a federal source of election administration information and support for state and local election officials.
Before that, Tatum served as executive director of the District of Columbia Board of Elections, where he came under fire for mismanaging the district’s November 2012 election. One local community advocate compared the election’s long lines, ballot errors, poorly trained staff, and malfunctioning equipment to “voting in a Third World country.”
Tatum’s experience also includes serving as interim director of the Georgia State Elections Division and an assistant director of legal affairs for the Georgia Secretary of State.
Tatum registered to vote as a Democrat in Atlanta in 2004 and again in D.C. in 2015.
To become eligible for the Harris County position, Tatum must establish residency in Texas and become a qualified voter of the state.
Harris County’s Democrat-dominated Election Commission met Tuesday to make their selection from among two finalists, voting unanimously for Tatum.
The commission includes County Judge Lina Hidalgo and the county clerk and tax assessor (all Democrats), along with the chairs of the county’s Democrat and Republican parties.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Alan Vera, volunteer chairman of the Harris County Republican Party Ballot Security Committee, urged commissioners to “please place a high value on actual, hands-on experience running elections.”
So many good people have experience serving on election commissions or other organizations charged with general supervision of the election process or policy.
But they have no personal experience with the detailed work involved in actually administering an election.
The fact is that when it comes to delivering free and fair, accurately run, timely reported elections, the devil is in the details. And it’s been failure in the details that have plagued our recent elections.
“The details include flawless chain of custody so that we’re not sitting at 3:00 a.m. wondering where the 13 missing ballot bags are,” Vera said, referring to a series of chain-of-custody violations by Longoria’s office during the May 7 elections.
Tatum will have only a few months to prepare to oversee his first Texas election—which will be in the third-most populous county in the U.S. with 2.4 million registered voters and a staff demoralized by a string of failures under Longoria that drove off many experienced workers.
Yet Longoria was just the latest in a line of Democrats who have damaged the reliability and reputation of the county’s elections office.
Democrats’ History in Harris County Elections
Diane Trautman was elected county clerk in 2018’s “blue wave” election that flipped Harris County government from Republican to Democrat. At that time, the county clerk was in charge of election administration, while the county tax assessor-collector managed voter registration.
Trautman implemented a number of controversial changes to county elections. She purged her Republican predecessor’s elections office staff and hired a new elections director, Michael Winn, who formerly managed elections for Travis County’s Democrat county clerk.
She and Winn pushed for countywide voting but made multiple mistakes when rolling out the new system in 2019.
Her mismanagement of the March 2020 primary elections—from loading the wrong voter roll data into electronic poll books to misallocating voting machines—created confusion and long lines at Democrat polling places on election night that captured national media attention.
In May 2020, Trautman resigned amid blowback from the primaries and mail-ballot controversies, and county commissioners appointed Texas Democrat Party official Chris Hollins as interim county clerk to oversee elections.
Hollins then hired Democrat activist Longoria to handle the election office’s voting outreach. Hollins and Longoria made headlines for disregarding state election laws by attempting to send mail-ballot applications to all registered voters in the county, eligible or not; keeping polls open 24 hours; and setting up “drive-thru” voting locations, which Longoria later testified to the Texas Legislature were intentionally placed to increase turnout in traditionally Democrat areas.
A few months later, county commissioners led by Democrat Commissioner Rodney Ellis decided to move election management from an elected county clerk to an appointed elections administrator.
Following the November 2020 election, Hidalgo convinced the Election Commission to appoint Longoria as elections administrator despite her lack of experience managing the process.
Longtime election workers complained about problems stemming from Longoria’s inexperience and unwillingness to listen to frontline poll workers.
Less than two years after her appointment, Longoria was forced to resign following the March primary fiasco, but her resignation didn’t take effect until July 1, leaving her in place to make more missteps in two May elections.
Beth Stevens, the county’s director of voting under Longoria, is now serving as interim elections administrator until Tatum’s appointment becomes official, likely in August.
At an Election Commission meeting on June 15, a group of Democrats asked county officials to reinstate Longoria despite her poor performance, citing the short time frame for the new administrator to get up to speed on the job before the next election.
Following Tuesday’s selection of Tatum, the Harris County Democrat Party said, “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.”
Early voting for the November election begins October 24.