Officials call election audits unnecessary partisan ploy while voicing confidence in 2020 results

ByReese Oxner and James Pollard, The Texas Tribune KTRK logo
Sunday, September 26, 2021
Election Audit Bill to review 4 Texas counties' 2020 election results
State officials reportedly announced the audit just hours after former pres. Donald Trump requested Gov. Abbott to add a bill to the legislature's third special session agenda.

Texas officials from three of the four counties whose 2020 elections are being audited by the secretary of state's office say the development is an unnecessary partisan move aimed at sowing doubt in the results.

Harris, Dallas and Tarrant County officials maintain that their 2020 election results were accurate, echoing a state election official's assertion earlier this year that the election was "smooth and secure." Collin County officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The video above is from related reporting.

RELATED: Questions linger after state announces audit of 2020 election results in four Texas counties

"The conspiracy theorists who want to come up with all these ways or reasons why this election wasn't right - they might very well find something else (to doubt)," said Republican Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley. "It's time to move on."

Whitley and officials in Harris also said they have not been told what the audits entail or what prompted them. They said they learned about them from a late Thursday press release sent by a spokesperson in the secretary of state's office. Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said an audit can have many forms, but Harris County elections administrator Isabel Longoria said her office hadn't heard any details of what the state's plans are as of noon Friday. Longoria said the county has already confirmed the results of the elections several times.

"If people want to hear it again and again and again and again, that nothing's wrong - great," she said. "But at what point are you going to be willing to hear the truth, that nothing was wrong with the November 2020 elections?"

GOP Gov. Greg Abbott defended the audit in a TV interview Sunday, downplaying the uproar over it. But he provided no details on how they will be conducted.

"Why do we audit everything in this world, but people raise their hands in concern when we audit elections, which is fundamental to our democracy?" Abbott said, speaking on "Fox News Sunday."

Former President Donald Trump carried Texas by 6 percentage points last year. Abbott acknowledged the audit will not change the fact that Trump won the state but said, "We have a responsibility to ensure the integrity of and confidence in the elections in the state of Texas."

The secretary of state announced the "full forensic audit" in the counties hours after Trump requested that Abbott add an election audit bill to this year's third special session of the Texas Legislature. Trump's request came even though he won the state's vote. Since his reelection loss last year, Trump has pushed baseless claims of voting fraud, including at a rally with supporters that preceded the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Tarrant County has traditionally been Republican, but Democratic President Joe Biden narrowly beat Trump there last year. Still, the secretary of state's office appeared to identify it as a Republican county Thursday.

Abbott said the audits "actually began months ago," though it was not immediately clear how that squared with local officials' claims that they did not know about them until the Thursday announcement. A spokesperson for the secretary of state's office has not responded to requests for comment.

Menefee said the timing of the audits' announcement just after Trump pressured the governor shows the audit is being done in "bad faith."

In Texas, the governor appoints the secretary of state, who serves as the top elections official. That position is currently vacant because Abbott has not named a replacement for Ruth Ruggero Hughs, who resigned after the Texas Senate refused to confirm her appointment.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, a Democrat, blasted Texas leadership for ordering the audit and said she would do "everything in her power" to stop it, though she and other Harris officials expressed confidence in the results.

"Every time we engage in a conversation about these false allegations, we're lending credence to the lie," she said. "Through all the court challenges the former president filed, through the legislation that passed unnecessarily under the guise of supposed fraud in this past legislative session - there's always something new because this is entirely politically motivated."

She called on lawmakers to oppose the audit, which she said is purely an attempt to appeal to Trump supporters.

"It's clear that this is part of a broader trend where state leaders around the nation are trying to compete on who can best curry favor from of President Trump, in order to control the extreme flank of their party," she said.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, a Democrat, echoed Hidalgo's remarks.

"This is a weak Governor openly and shamelessly taking his orders from a disgraced former President. Governor Abbott is wasting taxpayer funds to trample on Texans' freedom to vote, all in order to appease his puppeteer," Jenkins said over text message.

Jenkins said in an interview that Dallas County will not resist the audit for now - but if the state asks for more than what the county thinks is suitable under the election code, he could see challenging it in court.

If Texas' process resembles anything like what recently occurred in Arizona's Maricopa County, the audit could take a while. According to news site, results reported Thursday from a monthslong audit in Maricopa that began April 22 and was done by hand confirmed what election officials reported in November: President Joe Biden won there.

The report was compiled by Cyber Ninjas, a contractor that received $5.7 million from pro-Trump groups to fund the audit, according to Cyber Ninjas CEO Doug Logan, who said the money would not influence the cybersecurity company's work. Some of the funding came from people within "Stop the Steal," the movement seeking to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, which hosted events leading up to the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.

For months, Texas Republicans have supported Trump's baseless claims of massive voter fraud, which culminated Jan. 6 when a pro-Trump mob scaled the U.S. Capitol and violently forced its way into the floors of the House and Senate in a failed attempt to prevent Congress from certifying the election's results.

Whitley, the Republican Tarrant County judge, said in an interview that although he is confident in his county's election results, he's happy to comply with the state to quell any lingering doubts.

However, he said, a relatively small number of his Republican constituents have expressed skepticism in the results. A University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll from June that found few Texas voters actually believe voting fraud is common, with only 19% believing ineligible people frequently cast ballots. But Whitley doubts an audit proving the results were correct will change the minds of people who are already skeptical.

"Politics plays into everything. And so, probably, in every instance the losers are always going to be looking for reasons why they lost," Whitley said. "I believe very strongly in the integrity of the election process and Tarrant County."

In December, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton - who spoke at a Jan. 6 rally preceding the insurrection - unsuccessfully sued four battleground states whose election results helped deliver the White House to Biden. U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, filed a far-fetched lawsuit of his own, requesting that Vice President Mike Pence challenge Biden's legitimacy. The Texas Republican later appeared to propose violence after a federal court tossed it.

Abbott named "election integrity" one of his emergency items for lawmakers this year, though there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud. Republican lawmakers complied, pushing voting restrictions legislation as an effort to safeguard elections from fraud and to standardize election practices.

Earlier this month, Abbott signed into law a sweeping elections bill that increases early voting hours in smaller, mostly Republican counties but otherwise restricts how and when voters cast ballots. The sweeping new law further tightens state election laws and constrains local control of elections by limiting counties' ability to expand voting options.

This year's voting legislation was opposed by voters with disabilities, voter advocacy groups and civil rights organizations who say it will raise new barriers for marginalized voters, especially voters of color, who tend to vote Democratic. The law specifically targets voting initiatives used by diverse, Democratic Harris County, the state's most populous, by banning overnight early voting hours and drive-thru voting - both of which proved popular among voters of color last year.

"I think the message that Governor Abbott intends to sound is, 'We're not going to stop in our relentless pursuit to tip the balance of elections,'" Jenkins said.

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, pointed out in a statement that the four counties selected to be audited have a large proportion of Texans of color. He said he believes the audit will be used to argue for voter suppression, especially of voters of color. Martinez Fischer said that Republicans continue to "criminalize voters of color" just as lawmakers reconvene in Austin to redraw political maps for the next 10 years.

"We don't need a crystal ball to see what is coming next: Republicans will lie that Black and Brown voters are committing fraud and that district lines must change to be fair," he said. "Two big lies don't equal fair elections-it's just voter suppression and discrimination."

Neelam Bohra and Patrick Svitek contributed to this story.

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