Last Wednesday, Clifford Tatum was sworn in as Harris County Elections Administrator. His predecessor, Isabel Longoria, resigned in July after being harshly criticized for her handling of the March primary elections. Houston Public Media spoke with Tatum about how he will approach election oversight work in Texas’ largest county.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
We have less than two months until early voting begins in Texas. Do you think Harris County will be ready?
What gives you confidence that the system will hold up?
Since being here, I have reviewed the current electoral processes and procedures. And while I watch the operations unfold, the team is doing the things that need to be done to prepare for an election.
Your predecessor fixed some of the things that were wrong with the March primary, but the midterm elections are a whole different story. Why do you think you can get into this job and fix things?
Well, I think you’re right to notice that there was a marked change between the March and May elections. And so what you have to think about is that while the size of the election may change, the election processes don’t. So when you prepare for a particular election, you go through the same processes and procedures and the differences, the scalability, how you scale to handle more polling places, whether it’s early voting or day of election, and training more election workers for each of these particular types of elections, early voting, and election day itself. And as I see what the training teams are doing, how we have updated, how they themselves have reviewed the training materials, the plans for rolling out the training in the community and in the individual police stations, as I see how the warehouse team prepares voting materials for deployment, the checkboxes are checked and we do what needs to be done. And based on my 20+ years of experience, the team here is doing the things that need to be done. And that’s what I’m very happy to see.
In your experience, having previously worked with the Washington DC election administration, you have had some problems yourself. What have you learned from past missteps?
Well, one of the things that we as election administrators understand is that while we’re trying to run a perfect election, there’s never really a perfect election, something happens because people are involved. So what we’re learning, and what we’re trying to do, is incorporate the data that we gathered in the last election, the lessons learned from the last elections, and we implement that into future processes . So one of the things you’re looking at is, in terms of voters queuing, how can we create more efficiencies at the polling station to deal with long lines? And I do it with air quotes. And part of that equation is how many voting machines you deploy? How many electronic voting books do you deploy? How many election workers do you have working at a particular site. And then you take into account the number of voters who will show up at any given time and throughout the day? For example, if you have 500 voters showing up at 6 p.m. and the polls close at 7 p.m., well, guess what? You are going to have lineups as we process these voters into the late hours of the night. So you’re constantly learning, we’re constantly adjusting. And that’s the key, being able to identify issues, resolve those issues in real time, and then plan and execute so you don’t run into those same issues in the next election.
You have already faced criticism from some local Republican officials regarding a federal tax lien against you. How do you respond to their argument that it affects your ability to do the job of an election administrator?
It is a matter of personal tax unrelated to my operations that I experienced as an administrator of elections. And in my more than 20 years of public service, I have never had a personal issue that has impacted my ability to do the job. And I’ll leave it at that.
What do you bring to this job that is different from your predecessors overseeing the Harris County elections?
Well, I’ve been in the election industry for over 20 years, I started in the state of Georgia at the state level. I went from being a state-level administrator to a consultant working with multiple jurisdictions, large and small, helping them organize their elections or advising them on the conduct of their elections. And I ran the office of the District of Columbia, the election administrator serves at both the state level and the county level. And I was General Counsel for the (US) Election Assistance Commission, which allowed me to see how all states manage and run their elections. So with over 20 years of experience, I think I understand how an election works. I’ve been involved in running the elections, as I mentioned, from the smallest county to the largest county, and of course Harris County will be the largest county I’ve interacted with. And I can’t wait to be there. And please let me first say there is no disrespect to any of my predecessors because I think there were all good people doing the work that the office asked them to do. I stand in different shoes and will bring different experiences to the process.
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