Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
In the five days since the Texas secretary of state’s office announced it is auditing the 2020 general election in four counties, local officials indicated they were in the dark about what the reviews would entail.
Now, they’ve learned they cover some of the standard post-election procedures local officials are already required to undertake.
The state agency that oversees elections Tuesday night offered the first glimpse of what it has dubbed “full forensic audits” of the election in Harris, Dallas, Tarrant and Collin counties, but it appears the scope of the effort may be more limited than what the term may suggest. The secretary of state’s documentation explaining the parameters of the reviews indicates the first phase includes partial manual counts of ballots and security assessments, which all counties are already required to undergo.
The second phase, which is slated for “spring 2022,” will be an examination of election records “to ensure election administration procedures were properly followed.” That includes reviews of records of voting machine accuracy tests, rosters for early voting, forms detailing chain of custody for sealed ballot boxes and other election materials maintained by the counties.
But the secretary of state also indicates it will review records that counties already provide to the office, including the “reasonable impediment declarations” filled out by voters who indicate they lack one of the photo ID the state requires voters to present to cast a ballot.
The reviews were announced last week hours after former President Donald Trump pressed Gov. Greg Abbott to add a “forensic audit of the 2020 election” to the agenda for the ongoing special legislative session. The ask served as a continuation of his baseless effort to cast doubts on the outcome of the election despite no evidence of widespread fraud and his victory in the state.
The announcement of the reviews was received harshly by local officials in the counties selected for review who called the development an unnecessary partisan move aimed at sowing doubt in the results. The Texas secretary of state’s office has previously declared the election “smooth and secure.”
In announcing the reviews, the secretary of state said it was focusing its efforts on Texas’ two largest Democrat counties, Harris and Dallas, and two largest Republican counties, Tarrant and Collin. But both longtime Republican strongholds show signs of inching away from the GOP. Tarrant narrowly voted Democratic at the top of the ticket in 2018 and 2020. In Collin County, Trump saw his margin of victory fall from 16% in 2016 to 4.6% in 2020.
Officials in Harris County on Tuesday morning indicated they remained unaware of what the audits would cover despite comments by Abbott that the reviews “actually began months ago.” Now, it appears the governor was, at least in part, referring to processes counties are separately required by law to complete.
For example, the partial manual counts of ballots listed under the first phase of the reviews must be conducted within 72 hours of polls closing after every single election.
The reviews also provoked criticism that invoked the politically driven election review in Arizona that has been mired by ineptitude and described by the Arizona secretary of state as an exercise plagued by “problematic practices, changing policies, and security threats.” The report of the Arizona review, which confirmed President Joe Biden won the state, was compiled by Cyber Ninjas, a contractor that received $5.7 million from pro-Trump groups to fund the audit.
In releasing the details about the reviews, a spokesman for the secretary of state emphasized the office would not be “hiring or contracting with an outside firm to conduct these audits.”
The months following Trump’s loss have been roiled by Republicans efforts to pursue election reviews across the country. The reviews announced by the Texas secretary of state’s office came just weeks after Republicans in the Texas Senate indicated an interest in passing legislation that would pave the way for county audits of the 2020 general election. Time ran out on the last special legislative session during which it was considered.
But the secretary of state’s office on Tuesday indicated its reviews could trigger full manual recounts of ballots cast in some precincts or polling locations if the office finds “irregularities or deviations from election administration procedures” that could have affected the accuracy of a county’s electronic ballot count.
Disclosure: Texas Secretary of State has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
The 2021 Texas Tribune Festival, the weeklong celebration of politics and policy featuring big names and bold ideas, wrapped on Sept. 25, but there’s still time to tune in. Explore dozens of free, on-demand events before midnight Thursday, Sept. 30, at tribfest.org.