Texas Senate too late with hastily conjured bill allowing party officials to trigger audits of 2020 election

A man readjusts his mask after showing his face to match his ID at the Metropolitan Multi-Services Center on W. Gray Street during the first day of early voting in Houston on Oct. 13, 2020.

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Fresh off their success passing legislation to tighten Texas voting laws, Republicans in the Texas Senate worked to hastily push through a bill filed just two days ago that would pave the way for county audits of the 2020 general election and set new rules for handling charges of irregularity in future elections.

The Texas Senate signed off on Senate Bill 97 on a 17-14 vote Thursday to create a new county-level auditing process for elections and give all state or county party officials the ability to trigger mandatory reviews. It was filed by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who has acknowledged the Senate is “operating a little bit at warp speed” to move the legislation in the waning days of the special legislative session.

The House never considered it, as time ran out on the special legislative session.

The bill was filed Tuesday, the same day the Senate suspended three rules so the legislation could be considered in committee the next morning. It was voted out Wednesday by the Republican-majority committee, setting it up to reach the Senate floor Thursday, where more rules were suspended to grant it swift passage.

But the Senate’s rush was in vain. Just a few hours after it passed the measure, both chambers decided not to continue through the weekend, instead ending the special legislative session a few days early.

“This bill, SB 97, is about election irregularities, giving a chance for the people involved to ask questions,” Bettencourt said before the Senate’s vote. “This is not about anything else except what gets measured gets fixed because if we know why they’ve had that discrepancy, we can fix the problem in the future.”

Democrats who opposed the legislation criticized the measure as an extension of efforts among some Republicans to falsely question the outcome of the 2020 election, invoking the specter of 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.”

“I don’t want to end up having the same mess that’s happening right now in Arizona,” said state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen. “As you well know, it’s becoming the laughingstock of the nation.”

Bettencourt assured his colleagues that the legislation would not make for “Arizona-style” audits or open the door to overturning elections.

Under SB 97, state or county party chairs could mandate a review of the 2020 election simply by submitting a request in writing to a county clerk. Those election officials would then be responsible for forming an “election review advisory committee” based on a list of voters in the county submitted by Republican and Democratic county chairs.

The review would generally include all in-person and mail ballots from Election Day in randomly selected county precincts and some early voting ballots, giving committee members access to all of the ballots cast in three to five races, one of which must be for a federal office, a statewide office or a county office.

The Texas secretary of state would be charged with setting an “acceptable margin of error” between ballots and the final vote counts. Discrepancies outside the margin of error would trigger additional reviews, including a countywide audit for races for federal, statewide or county offices.

Audit results outside the margin of error would prompt an analysis by the secretary of state to determine likely causes for the discrepancies and recommended corrective action.

In future elections, a second part of the bill would allow candidates, county party chairs, presiding polling place judges or heads of political action committees that took a position on a ballot measure to push for audits if they suspect irregularities.

That process would begin with a written request to the county clerk for an “explanation and supporting documentation” for alleged irregularities or election code violations. If the person requesting the review is not “satisfied” with the response, they could request “further explanation.” If they are still unhappy, they could turn to the Texas secretary of state to request an audit of the issue.

If the secretary of state determines the county’s explanations are inadequate, it must immediately begin an audit of the issue at the expense of the county. If a violation is identified, the state can issue $500 penalties for each violation that is not corrected by the county clerk within 30 days.

Disclosure: The 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 Tribunes journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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