When Chris Hollins took over as interim Harris County Clerk this summer, he expected to remain a relative unknown.
“I don’t want the news to be about who ran the election or how it was run,” Hollins, 34, recently told Houstonia as the county’s unprecedented 18-day stretch of early voting came to a close. “Because normally if you’re having that kind of headline, it’s not good."
Of course, that’s not how this contentious election cycle has played out as Harris County gained national attention as an epicenter in the country’s ongoing battle over mail-in ballots and drive-thru polls.
Instead of flying under the radar, he’s found himself in an increasingly brighter spotlight as his office pushed back against a slew of lawsuits and contentions about how people should cast their ballots. But Hollins, who already made Houston history when he became both the youngest and first person of color to serve as Harris County Clerk, has come to embrace his central role on the frontlines of the battle for voting rights, calling his newfound fame “a badge of honor.”
“It’s not something we were looking for,” he notes, “but if that’s the fight we have to have, we’ll do it without restraint.”
A fourth-generation Houstonian and Hightower High School alum, Hollins developed a dedication for public service watching his father serve more than 30 years in the Houston Police Department and his mother open their family home to 20 foster children while raising him and his sisters. In fact, his own foray into public service began in 2009 when he interned in the White House Office of Presidential Personnel during the Obama Administration.
So, when the Diane Trautman resigned as county clerk in May, citing health issues, Hollins knew he had a responsibility to step away from his lucrative law practice and help guide the county through this all-important election.
Though Hollins is a proud Democrat and has even served as vice-chair of finance for the Texas Democratic Party, his efforts as Harris County Clerk are as non-partisan as they come, he says. Everyone has the Constitutional right to have their voices heard, no matter which side of the aisle they’re on are which part of town they live in, he continues, and the policies he’s put in place since assuming office in June expand voting rights unilaterally, regardless of party.
“We are at a pivotal time in this country,” explains Hollins. “So many folks are yearning to have their voices heard. It’s my job to make that possible, to make sure everyone can cast their vote and do so safely, conveniently, and with the peace of mind that their vote will be counted.”
Using his background in management consulting, Hollins rolled out an ambitious expansion of voter access, tripling early voting locations from that of the 2016 election; leading the country as one of the first counties to pilot a 24-hour voting period and drive-thru voting system; and instituting safety policies to protect voters and election workers during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic—all while logging the major events in residents’ lives (think birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, and property documents) as the chief record keeper for the county.
These efforts helped Harris County shatter its all-time voter turnout record, casting an unbelievable 1.44 million ballots in early voting alone—not bad for a first-time public servant. Hollins and his team expected their efforts to increase voter turnout, and they even believe the onslaught of GOP lawsuits has helped bolster voter enthusiasm (tell a Texan they can't do something like, say, vote, and watch how fast they hit the polls, Hollins says). But they never anticipated a turnout like this.
And it’s not just seeing the “truly mind-blowing” number of individuals casting their ballots, for Hollins it’s also the stories he’s hearing from those voters.
“I was almost moved to tears when I heard about a couple, both of them over 70—they’ve been married for 40 years—and neither of them has ever voted before,” he recalls. “They came out to vote this time because it was made simple for them.”
Hollins’s focus on voter access continues into Election Day itself, when Harris County will have a whopping 800 voting centers spread out across the county—there’s still a million voters who haven’t cast their ballots yet, and he wants to reach every single one of them.
Once the last ballot has been counted and the total tallied, Hollins, who is not running for office this election, plans to return to his legal practice, and, more importantly, spend extra time with his daughter, Vivian, 3, and newborn son, George Thomas, whom he’s sorely missed while fighting the good fight these past six months. He’ll also turn his attention back to his other burgeoning business, a family-friendly sports bar in northwest Houston called Stacked Pickle that he plans to open before the end of the year.
But he’s not ruling out a return to public service, either, after his experience as clerk.
“I will certainly never forget these few months spent in this office," he says, "making sure that regardless of who you are, you had as much access as you possibly could to make sure your voice was heard and claim your seat at the table in this democracy.”