Texas elections secure despite COVID-related ‘irregularities’ in 2020, audit finds

Secetary of State John Scott watches voting machines undergo a state-mandated test at the Hays County government building in San Marcos on Sept. 21. Scott, the states chief election official, released a 359-page audit Monday of the 2020 elections in Texas. (Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune, Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune)

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Despite challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, there was neither widespread voter fraud nor other serious issues in Texas’ 2020 elections, according to an audit of four of Texas’ largest counties released Monday evening by Secretary of State John Scott’s office.

While the 359-page report did find some “irregularities,” it nonetheless reinforced what election experts and monitors — including Scott, the state’s chief election official — have routinely said: that the 2020 contest was not riddled with widespread fraud, and Texans should be confident that future elections will be similarly secure.

“When the Texas Election Code and local procedures are followed, Texas voters should have a very high level of confidence in the accuracy of the outcome of Texas elections,” the report stated. “When procedures are followed, results of the election are trustworthy. Indeed, in most cases, the audit found that the counties followed their procedures and clearly documented their activities.”

The audit was prompted amid ongoing concerns about election security that have been intensified by former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 contest was rife with fraud. In response to Trump’s baseless assertions — which have repeatedly been debunked in dozens of dismissed lawsuits — Scott’s office launched probes of four of Texas’ largest counties: Harris, Dallas, Tarrant and Collin.

The findings come ahead of the Texas Legislature’s upcoming session, which starts Jan. 10 and is expected to include numerous voting bills. And the report sheds new light on the effects of Senate Bill 1, a package of voting reforms that lawmakers passed during the 2021 session that significantly tightened mail-in voter identification requirements, banned drive-thru and 24-hour voting, and curtailed early-voting hours, among other things.

The report found that “many of the irregularities observed” in 2020 were likely caused by the “extraordinary challenges” posed by the pandemic and ensuing staffing shortages. And, auditors said, such problems are even less likely to occur in future contests because of legislative changes, including those in Senate Bill 1.

Of the four counties the report analyzed, the Harris County general election had the most issues, including improper chain of custody of mobile ballot boxes at 14 polling locations. Auditors also found thousands of discrepancies between electronic pollbook records and audit logs.

The Harris County elections administrators office could not be reached for comment Monday. Officials in Harris County — which significantly expanded voter access during the pandemic — have previously decried the enhanced oversight from the secretary of state’s office as unwarranted and characterized it as an attempt at voter suppression.

Tarrant County, where a grassroots conservative group mounted a statewide effort to sow doubts about the 2020 election, administered a “quality, transparent election,” the report found.

The county’s elections administrator since 2018, Heider Garcia, said Monday evening that he was pleased with the findings.

“It shows that voters in Tarrant county can trust the process that we have and can be confident in the results of the elections,” said Garcia, who was the subject of harassment on social media from extremists alleging widespread voter fraud in Texas.

Garcia added that Collin County, which the report considered a “model” of how Texas elections should be run, could perhaps offer some tools to further improve Tarrant County’s elections. Both counties are in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

The report noted that data from all the counties had internal inconsistencies, or multiple sources of information for the same data. Dallas County, for example, provided auditors with four sources of data showing mail-ballot statistics, and all showed different numbers of rejected mail-in ballots. The county also struggled with “phantom voters,” where some voters who checked in were registered under different names in the electronic pollbook.

Dallas County elections officials could not be reached for comment Monday.

The report findings are likely to feature prominently when the Texas legislature begins meeting early next year. Scott has routinely said his goal with the audits was to restore confidence in the electoral process — an approach that has prompted criticism from voting rights groups but plaudits from local elections officials who have been besieged by harassment as a result of voter fraud myths.

Scott, who was appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott late last year, announced earlier this month that he will step down from the position at the end of 2022. Abbott has since said he will nominate retiring state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, to replace Scott as secretary of state — a position that requires confirmation by the Texas Senate.

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 Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.