Analysis: Texas enters 2022 with a bang — and some whimpering

A voter casting a ballot at the Austin Oaks Church on Oct. 14, 2020. (Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune, Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune)

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The governor’s ballyhooed audit of the 2020 elections in Texas resulted in a preliminary report issued as quietly as possible on the last day of 2021. The verdict? The election had some minor glitches, but it was about as fair and clean as elections get.

That’s a decent opening for a new year and a new election season — or would be, if only the people who demanded an audit were willing to accept the results. The state is vaulting into party primary elections. Finance reports are imminent. Early voting starts on Valentine’s Day. Election Day is fewer than 60 days away. TV ads are already running.

Doubt is high, too.

The effects of a year of bleating about the outcome of the 2020 election set the stage for suspicion about this coming vote. The anniversary of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol is this week. Democrats in the U.S. Senate are threatening to change the rules of debate if they don’t get a vote on federal legislation that would upend voting suppression efforts in Texas and other states with Republican legislative majorities.

One of the Republican candidates for governor, former state Sen. Don Huffines of Dallas, is already misrepresenting the results of the election audit — before more people inside or outside of government have even scanned it — to throw shade on his almost certain defeat in March.

“This report confirms what most of us have known for years — our elections are not secure,” he said in a news release after the audit came out. In Dallas County, where Huffines lives, the Texas secretary of state’s report noted recent security enhancements to the voting system: “The combination of features provide for an end-to-end, highly secure encrypted environment to transport voter registration data.”

Later, the report addressed handling of people on the voter registration lists who’ve died or who shouldn’t be there at all.

“Please note that removal of ineligible and/or deceased voters from the statewide voter registration list in and of itself does not indicate that any illegal votes were cast,” the auditors wrote, in a section that was in underlined, bold type.

“These maintenance activities are prescribed by state law to ensure the integrity and accuracy of the statewide voter registration list,” they wrote. “Voter list maintenance is performed on a regular and ongoing basis in Texas to prevent ineligible voters from casting ballots and to prevent individuals from casting ballots using another person’s voter registration information.”

Endless efforts to find widespread fraud in Texas elections have fallen short. This latest one did, too. Auditors found relatively minor discrepancies between electronic and hand counts of ballots and nothing close to numbers that would flip any election results.

Those auditors have another round of work underway in their attempt “to provide clarity and confidence for Texas voters that all applicable laws and procedures were followed during the 2020 Election, and to identify any irregularities or issues that need to be addressed going forward.”

As with the first phase, they’re looking at four of the state’s biggest counties: Harris, Dallas, Tarrant and Collin.

It’ll be useful in helpful and unhelpful ways. It’s great to know whether the system is working right: whether dead people are taken out of the voter rolls, whether there’s a way to scrub out people who shouldn’t be registered at all and whether people who’ve left Texas have also left its voter rolls.

It also keeps questions about election integrity alive, a boon to those Republicans who don’t believe Donald Trump lost the 2020 election — and who don’t believe it so deeply that they wanted an audit of a Texas election that the former president won by 5.6 percentage points. One of those is Trump himself, who publicly called for a Texas audit in September.

The Legislature addressed Republican questions about voting in Texas last year, passing a set of laws that have been challenged in court by the U.S. Department of Justice, by Democrats and by voter advocacy groups who say the new Texas laws will suppress voting.

Those laws passed after Democrats in the Texas House left Austin for Washington, D.C., delaying the proceedings here and trying to lobby Congress to pass a federal law that would reverse what Republicans here and in other states were trying to do. That didn’t work, but congressional Democrats are working on the project now, threatening to change U.S. Senate rules to their advantage if Republicans continue to block consideration of their voting bills.

That’s where we begin this 2022 election year in Texas — pretty much the way we ended the 2020 elections, with sore losers, insurrections, fruitless challenges to election procedures and results, and audits of elections in states where those sore losers actually won.

The first part of the 2020 election audit is done, and no foul play has been detected. Republicans who might benefit from doubt about the system are shouting their questions. Democrats are in court and in Congress trying to shut them down. Voters are trying to figure out who should be running their governments at this time next year.

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.