Right now, people who love baseball are talking about pitchers and catchers, and people who love politics are talking about down-ballot races.
My Harris County Democratic Primary ballot asked me to make a bunch candidate choices, from president to precinct chair, before arriving at 6 referenda questions.
Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector, listed as Dem-County Tax Assessor-Collector, was the 42nd office out of 46. When someone says down-ballot, 42 out of 46 is about as down-ballot as it gets.
The name may not have much swagger, but the office is incredibly important. First, let’s review what the office does. Then, let’s talk about what the office could do in the hands of the right person, and about who’s running.
The County Tax Assessor-Collector and Voter Registrar—yes, the title is even longer than what they put on the ballot—has three main functions:
- Tells you how much you owe in property tax, collects your payment, and makes sure that payment gets credited to the right account so it can be used by the taxing entity. The office doesn’t set the tax rate—it’s like the ticket-taker at the door, checking the list and telling you what you owe.
- Handles vehicle registrations and title transfers. When you buy or sell a vehicle, your transaction involves paperwork from this office.
- Registers people to vote after determining whether they are eligible, sends voter registration cards, and provides certified lists of registered voters to the county when election time comes. If you fill out a voter registration application, or sign up with a deputy voter registrar, you’ve worked with this department.
Why does it make a difference who carries out these seemingly innocuous administrative duties?
Glad you asked.
I’m a deputy voter registrar. When I was trained several years ago, the cards we received to use with voters were printed on uncoated paper. That meant that pretty much any pen would work on them, ballpoint, felt tip, roller ball, etc.
This year, the cards are smaller, and printed on coated paper.
That means that fewer pens work on them, and ink is more likely to smear, especially when you are trying to fit things onto smaller blanks.
And a smeared voter registration card could be the difference between whether you get registered to vote, or whether your registration is rejected. So a seemingly inconsequential administrative duty like picking paper stock for a print job isn’t really all that inconsequential after all.
A voter registrar who is interested in increasing voter turn-out and growing the voter rolls so that more eligible people participate in elections might have a different process for following up on a smeared registration card than a registrar whose political party does better when fewer people show up to vote.
[Hint: it’s the GOP does better when fewer people vote.]
Do you send one follow-up notice and forget it? Or do you send two, and make a phone call? Do you have a public campaign on how to make sure your registration is active, or do you put it up on the website and assume people will look for it if they’re curious?
While there is absolutely no leeway in who can be deemed eligible to vote, there is nothing but leeway in the policies and procedures that the office can create about making it harder or easier to register.
In the same way, the office has no leeway in telling you how much property tax you owe. The person who holds the office, however, and sees who pays how much, is exceptionally well-qualified to share an opinion on how equitably tax rates are assessed, and to advocate for greater fairness in that process.
Imagine having a person with strong relationships throughout the state legislature, who could speak with great authority as the Tax Assessor-Collector of the largest county in the state about the need to close property tax loopholes.
Four people are on the ballot in Harris County: two Republicans, two Democrats.
On the GOP side, you have business as usual. Don Summers used to hold the office. Under his watch, he made it harder for new citizens to register. Mike Sullivan currently holds it. He’s the one responsible for the coated voter registration cards, and for lobbying against online voter registration. The Houston Chronicle endorsed Sullivan.
On the Democratic side is one perennial candidate, Ann Harris Bennett, and one new candidate, Brandon Dudley.
Bennett has run twice for Harris County Clerk, and twice (including this time) for County Tax Assessor-Collector. Bennett has not yet filed her mandatory 30-day-out and 8-day-out contributions and expenditures reports. While her current website for the Tax Assessor-Collector website describes her career history only as “years of experience in public service,” her still-live 2015 campaign website for County Clerk says that she worked for almost 15 years as the court coordinator in two county courts.
Her primary opponent is Brandon Dudley, endorsed by the Houston Chronicle, who is current on all state-mandated campaign finance filings. Dudley, an attorney who undertook graduate study in social work, comes to the race after more than a decade as Chief of Staff for State Senator Rodney Ellis, so he has strong relationships and insider knowledge of how to navigate state politics. His career-long commitment to equal rights and racial justice, including service as legal counsel to the Innocence Project, underscores his campaign promise to advocate for fair and equitable taxes, and equal access to the ballot.
If you’re in Harris County, make sure you go all the way to the end of the ballot to vote in this critical race. Read what the Houston Chronicle has to say about each candidate, and check out who has endorsed them.
If you live in another Texas county, check out who holds the office, what that person has done, and who is running to challenge that record, positive or negative.
Remember, if you don’t vote, you don’t have a voice. And when it comes to taxes and voting, why would you want to give up your vote or your voice?
Header photo is candidate Brandon Dudley on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Read his explanation for why he took the journey to visit that site when making his decision to run.