Citing personal health concerns, the top election official in Texas’ most populous county resigned Saturday, ending the Democrat’s brief but controversial tenure and leaving the office’s direction in doubt just months ahead of a high-stakes presidential election.
Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman’s resignation comes just days after she reversed course on expanding mail-ballot voting in the county—a plan inspired by Texas Democrat Party lawsuits to force universal vote-by-mail, based on fear of contracting the Chinese coronavirus.
The announcement also came just days after a local mail-ballot election fraud complaint was referred to the Texas attorney general’s office for investigation.
“After much deliberation and discussion with my family and physician, I am resigning from my position as Harris County Clerk due to personal health concerns,” Trautman said in her resignation letter to County Judge Lina Hidalgo. “Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, my age, and underlying health issues, I do not feel I can safely continue to carry out my duties as Harris County Clerk.”
Just two weeks ago, Trautman convinced commissioners court to approve $12 million to expand mail-ballot voting in Harris County’s upcoming 2020 elections—the July 14 primary and November 3 presidential election—due to fear of the Chinese coronavirus.
Days later, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sent a letter warning county judges and election officials not to mislead the public about the state’s vote-by mail-laws, which do not allow voters to claim disability on mail-ballot applications based on fears of contracting the coronavirus:
“Accordingly, public officials shall not advise voters who lack a qualifying sickness or physical condition to vote by mail in response to COVID-19.”
Paxton’s letter also warned county officials could be criminally prosecuted for misleading the public about vote-by-mail laws, and his press release specifically mentioned Harris County’s judge and clerk.
Last Thursday, Trautman reversed course on expanding mail ballots, saying in a May 7 planning meeting for the July primary that she would not send mail-ballot applications to every age-eligible voter in the county “in the current environment.”
She announced on Saturday she was leaving.
Trautman’s resignation is effective May 31, though she may “hold over” in office until she’s replaced. Her office administers elections for over 2.2 million registered voters.
County commissioners will appoint a replacement to serve temporarily, until voters choose a new clerk to fill the remainder of the four-year term in a special election on November 3.
The Democrat-majority commissioners court is expected to replace Trautman with another Democrat who could also run for the seat in November. Because this year’s primary elections have passed, party representatives will select their candidates for the general election ballot.
Trautman was elected in the 2018 “blue wave” election. Documents included in the election fraud complaint compiled by local government-accountability activist Colleen Vera show payments made that year by Trautman’s campaign and others to a convicted forger.
Once in office, 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 a move to countywide vote centers, which allow voters to cast ballots at any polling place in the county. Though popular, studies show vote centers do not increase voter participation, and Republicans warned the county wasn’t ready to roll out the program securely.
In last May’s municipal elections, poll workers reported long voter check-in wait times due to poor connectivity of the new electronic poll books that are a key component of vote centers.
Trautman drew more criticism in November when she was again stymied by implementing countywide voting, taking hours longer to tally votes from the low-turnout, odd-year election than her predecessor did in November 2018. Her election night vote-counting plan for the county’s 750 vote centers had to be changed at the last minute because it didn’t meet state security standards.
Her mismanagement of the March 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.
The Democrat official initially blamed Republicans for the long lines but later admitted she and Winn were responsible for the election-night fiasco, and that she didn’t anticipate how her switch to countywide voting would impact primary elections.
“[W]e take full responsibility for the long lines and wait times,” Trautman said in an official statement three days after the primary. She told county commissioners the following week it was time to “move on to November.”
Harris County elections will now be moving on without Trautman.