National news outlets turned their attention to Harris County (the largest county in Texas) during the 2020 election season because of its huge voter turnout. The fact that Texas went from one of the lowest voter turnout states to one of the highest is due in large part to the efforts of Isabel Longoria, a 32-year-old lesbian and Montrose native who was recently appointed by the Commissioners Court to be the very first elections administrator for Harris County.
Longoria was sworn in by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Thursday, November 18. Voter registration and elections administration will now fall under Longoria’s purview. The first election that she will oversee is the December 12 municipal runoffs.
“My passion is to serve Harris County, advocating for voting rights and developing policy that redefines what it means to be a public official. To say serving Harris County as its first elections administrator is a dream job is an understatement. It’s the position of a lifetime,” Longoria says. “My commitment to the voters and future voters of Harris County is to serve each and every resident with the integrity and innovation that this office deserves, and to create an office that merges elections and voter registration seamlessly and puts people first.
A Nonpartisan Position
Over the summer, Longoria worked closely with outgoing County Clerk Chris Hollins to help prepare Harris County voters for an election season like no other. Before becoming the elections administrator, Longoria had been serving as the county’s “Special Advisor on Voting Rights and Access.” Longoria’s new role is a nonpartisan job created to combine two important duties that had been split between two elected officials: the Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector, and the Harris County Clerk.
“We’ve carved out elections administration and voter registration and combined them into one department. This aligns more closely with what voters thought was happening. Now, with both of these departments together under one roof, you can do awesome things,” Longoria says.
One of those things is recruiting more young people to become poll workers. During the pandemic, many older poll workers were unable to participate due to their increased risk for COVID-19 complications. Many of those young people who stepped up to fill the void are now more connected to the voting process. Longoria hopes to have these young people become voter-registration deputies and register their 18-year-old classmates who are newly eligible to vote. The idea is to create a cycle of voter participation by weaving new voters into the fabric of civic engagement.
Controversy at the Drive-Thru
“The most important thing that happened under Hollins was [the way] we started. He told us to throw out everything we knew about voting and ask ourselves what we would want to see happen as a voter,” Longoria recalls.
That brainstorming led to some innovative solutions like 24-hour voting, a redesign of the mailed ballots to ease confusion, tripling the number of early-voting locations, and—most controversial of all—drive-thru voting.
“People do so much from their cars. They use the drive-thru at McDonald’s and at the bank, so why not a drive-thru to vote?” Longoria wondered.
Drive-thru voting, in particular, caught the ire of some in the Texas Republican Party. They sued Hollins, claiming that it was a violation of Texas election law—despite the fact that county officials worked closely with the state in developing the process and ensuring its legality well in advance. At one point, the plaintiffs asked that the 127,000 voters who used drive-thru voting have their ballots tossed out. Although a federal judge denied that request, county officials still decided to close down all but one of the drive-thru polling locations on Election Day.
Longoria also considered the needs of Houstonians who, due to their jobs or familial responsibilities, often cannot find the time to vote. This was where Longoria came up with the idea to provide 24-hour voting locations.
“We had seven percent of voters go between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. It wasn’t just two college kids late at night going to the polls. I heard story after story about welders getting to vote early before their shifts started. Medical workers getting to vote after their late shift ended. People using it throughout the night, for various reasons. That participation showed us that when we provide more opportunities for people to vote, they will use it,” Longoria says.
Although Longoria already had an advisory role for the November election cycle, she was selected for her new position only after the county conducted a nationwide search. Her biggest strength was her deep roots in Houston. She graduated from St. Agnes Academy before attending Trinity University in San Antonio to study sociology. She then got her graduate degree in public affairs from the University of Texas at Austin. When she returned to Houston, Longoria focused her career on civic engagement and politics by going to work for former state representative Jessica Farrar and former state senator (now U.S. congresswoman) Sylvia Garcia. Longoria was also one of the original members of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s LGBTQ Advisory Board, as well as a board member for the League of Women Voters.
Most recently, Longoria came within only 16 votes of ousting Houston City Council Member Karla Cisneros. However, Longoria’s loss in that District H race was Harris County’s gain when she and the rest of her team were sworn in by Hollins on June 1. That’s when they got busy with their history-making election administration work.
Longoria told the Houston Press in November, “My pitch is I’m the hometown kid. I think what I will bring to the elections administrator’s office is the knowledge of exactly what it means to vote at Juergens Hall versus Moody Park. I know the differences in those communities. I know what they need, voter registration-wise [and on Election Day]. I want to bring that spirit of someone who loves Houston so deeply to every part of voting.”
Longoria is hoping to work with the Texas Legislature during the 2021 Legislative Session to implement more broadly some of the ideas that were successful in Harris County. Her primary focus is truly nonpartisan, and she is deeply committed to getting people engaged in shaping their community through the power of their vote. Longoria hopes more Texans will use that power to create better opportunities to be successful.
Her message to Harris County voters is simple: “When we do something that you like, please show us you like it by using it and voting. It helps us to be more innovative in the future.”
Keep up with Isabel Longoria on Facebook at facebook.com/LongoriaForH.