Annexation has nearly become an unspeakable word in Ellis County. But, come Election Day May 4, the word could precede the phrase "specially called election" should enough Ellis County voters cast ballots in favor of changing the county's tier status.
There's one catch: Many registered voters have already voiced confusion over the wording of Proposition A, which, if approved by voters, would change the county’s status from Tier 1 to Tier 2. This would mean that a city could no longer force annexation, as it would have to first be presented to voters.
Texas counties are currently divided into "Tier 1" and "Tier 2" status. Tier 2 counties — for populations over 500,000— require an election before a municipality can annex an unincorporated area. Tier 1 counties, which have fewer than 500,000 residents, only require an election before annexation if — and only if —the county holds an election to move to Tier 2.
As Ellis County stands now, a city government can force annex areas into its city limits.
The opportunity to vote on the county’s status is a direct result of the 85th Legislative session. In 2017, Texas legislatures passed Senate Bill 6, which allowed residents of areas up for possible annexation by cities to hold a referendum to determine the annexation.
According to previous Daily Light reports, the Ellis County Commissioners Court called for an election to change the county's tiered status in September 2017. The decision to place the item on the May ballot came after Luis Ponder, the co-author of the petition to change the tiered status and a Midlothian resident, led an initiative that gathered 13,347 signatures in support of the change. The group needed just 9,484 to warrant placement on the May 4 ballot.
State Representative John Wray, of Waxahachie, has also recently co-authored and voted "yea" on Texas House Bill 347, which would eliminate the "tiered" annexation system for Texas counties, according to a previous Daily Light report.
The bill, filed by Representative Phil King, of Weatherford, essentially makes all counties equal for purposes of municipal annexation law.
"It is still very important that the citizens in Ellis County head to the polls and cast their vote," Wray warned in a previous Daily Light report. "While HB 347 has cleared a major hurdle, anything can happen in the legislative session, and it would be disastrous if folks skipped the election, and something happened that HB 347 didn't pass. So it is important that their voice is heard on May 4."
The bill co-authored by Wray is headed to the Texas Senate and, if passed, will make it to the governor’s desk for a signature before it becomes law.
So about Proposition A that Ellis County voters will soon find on their ballots as soon as Monday when early voting kicks off: The ballot item reads, "Changing Ellis County from Tier 1 County status to Tier 2 County status for purposes of Municipal Annexation as described by Chapter 43 of the Texas Local Government Code."
Residents can vote for or against the item. This is where many have asked for clarification. Voting "for" Proposition A would be a vote in favor of limiting the city government's ability to force annex areas without a specially called election. Voting against Proposition A is a vote to keep the status quo.
But where did that wording come from?
Ellis County Election Administrator Jana Onyon said the exact wording came from Parker County which approved the same proposition during a November election.
In fact, the local elections office never comes up with the wording for a proposition, Onyon noted. The verbiage is given to the office by the organization putting the item on the ballot. For instance, if a school district has a bond to put on the ballot, it will send the wording to the elections office which will then put it on the ballot as is.
A similar process is done for petition items, which Proposition A originated as, Onyon said.
Parker County was one of the first to implement a vote after the 85th Legislature dismissed in 2017, Parker County Elections Administrator Don Markum said.
The ballot wording for that election came from the petitions to change Parker County's tier system and the county attorney, Markum said.
"That was a collaboration between the people that did the petition and the county attorney,” he noted. “But ultimately it was the county attorney."
Voters can either choose for or against the status change. In other cases it can be worded as a yes or a no choice, Markum said. With this particular item, the options would never be Tier 1 or Tier 2 because that’s not what people are voting for directly. They are voting for a status change, Markum noted.
"It's a vote to classify your county as a Tier 2 county," he said.
Petition organizer Louis Louis Ponder worked with other counties in the area, including Parker County, to figure out a wording that would best fit the ballot.
Ponder said since November was the first time people were voting for a tiered status, organizers wanted to run the item through Texas Secretary of State’s office.
"We can't understand it. Why would you word it that way?," said Ponder about the wording of the proposition. "The way we worded it was explaining more, but they said it could be suggestive."
The initial wording he and others wanted was explanative and significantly longer. But, attorneys at the Texas Secretary of State’s office advised against it because it could be seen as leading the voter and suggested the current wording, he said.
The reason was to avoid a city filing a lawsuit against the results because the wording was deemed as leading, Ponder said.
"If the city won, and there is a good chance they would with the wording we had, we would have to start over again," he added.
Ponder added the current wording is a little confusing so he is focused on educating people what they are voting for through social media.
"We're going to try to have as many people at the polls to educate people before they go in to let them know what it is," he noted. "I'm trying to use Facebook to do much of the same."
Samantha Douty, @SamanthaDouty