A bill allowing citizens to initiate audits of election irregularities is moving quickly through the Texas Legislature in the final days of the current special session that ends on Sunday.
Senate Bill 97 by State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R–Houston) empowers certain individuals involved in elections to request explanations of anomalies from their county election officials. If needed, they can also request state audits to resolve identified issues.
“What gets measured gets fixed,” Bettencourt said while laying out his bill during a public hearing Wednesday morning in the Senate State Affairs Committee.
Bettencourt said his bill provides a civil administrative procedure for election irregularities to be researched, documented, and resolved. “It looks at whatever issue there is in the field, measures it, and fixes it.”
“We’ve got some type of irregularities in almost every election,” he added. “It’s up to the Legislature to provide an audit capability.”
The bill has two provisions.
First, specific individuals with direct knowledge of election irregularities can ask their county election official to explain and document the issues within 20 days of a request.
The anomalies can include action taken by an election officer that appears to violate election code, irregularities in precinct results, and inadequacy or irregularity of required election documentation.
If not satisfied with the county’s response, individuals can request an audit by the secretary of state’s office, which can act on the findings by imposing civil penalties for violations not fixed by the county and making corrections when possible.
Citizens who can initiate action include a candidate, county chair of a political party, presiding judge, alternate presiding judge, or head of a political committee that supports or opposes a ballot measure.
Second, SB 97 also includes a “lookback” provision that lets political party chairs request an audit of 2020 election results. The county clerk would appoint an audit committee made up of local voters with specific expertise.
Bettencourt said the bill was born out of his years of experience in elections. He served as Harris County’s voter registrar from 1998 to 2008.
“As election integrity advocates, our committee is increasingly frustrated by the absence of a venue or channel for investigating and resolving a growing range of data discrepancies in our elections,” said Alan Vera, chair of the Harris County Republican Party Ballot Security Committee.
Vera told lawmakers the Texas Public Information Act “allows us to ask for documents but does not allow us to ask for explanations” of what caused the discrepancies so the problems can be fixed. “This bill is necessary.”
“Faith in our elections right now is at an all-time low,” said Chad Ennis of Texas Public Policy Foundation, explaining why he believes the bill is needed. “It’s one of the few things we get bipartisan agreement on.”
He said polls show 40 percent of Americans believe the 2020 election was tainted, including 30 percent of Democrats. Prior to 2020, in 2019, 60 percent lacked confidence in elections.
“Some of these problems are honest mistake problems,” he added. “We can’t get a fix until we see what the problem is.”
Keith Ingram, director of elections in the Texas secretary of state’s office, told lawmakers most election irregularities are caused by human error, mainly in the chain of custody.
“Most of the time, the remedy is better chain of custody procedures,” he said.
Transparency and chain of custody took center stage at the state’s annual election law training seminar in August.
“It’s nonsense that we just started caring about elections in 2020,” State Sen. Bob Hall (R–Edgewood) said. “It’s nothing new. We have such a loose process that people are losing confidence in it.”
Hall added the election transparency measure is long overdue.
“The Legislature has been remiss in not addressing it before now,” he said. “If we’d had this in 2020, we would not have had as many questions.”
Committee members voted 5-2 to advance a revised “committee substitute” of Bettencourt’s bill to the full Senate.
But it’s unclear if there is time remaining for SB 97 to make it through the legislative process. The ongoing second special session ends on September 5.