Just before Thursday’s abrupt end to the state’s latest lawmaking session, Texas senators approved an election measure many said is long overdue: setting a civil procedure for initiating county-level reviews of election irregularities that, if left unresolved, could trigger audits and corrective action by the state.
Senate Bill 97 by State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R–Houston) created a civil complaint procedure giving people involved in the election process a way to question local election officials about specific discrepancies, get a response addressing the problems, and then let the secretary of state’s office determine if there’s need for an audit.
“This bill will help ensure a path for continued improvement and an accurate voting process with results all Texans can trust and believe in,” Bettencourt said in a statement following the Senate’s vote on Thursday.
Lawmakers’ early adjournment of this year’s second special legislative session killed the bill for now, but Bettencourt suggested he’ll refile it in the future.
“This is not an ‘Arizona-style’ audit,” he said during discussion on the Senate floor. “It’s designed to get specific questions answered on specific irregularities.”
“There’s no way to ask the questions under current election code,” he added. “This opens civil administrative review of specific issues that doesn’t exist in the code right now.”
Under existing law, such reviews usually only happen as part of a criminal investigation or election contest.
Citizens can currently request election documents using the Texas Public Information Act. But as one witness testified at Wednesday’s public hearing on the bill, the TPIA doesn’t allow them to ask for “explanations” of what happened to cause documented discrepancies.
“If we know why they had the discrepancy, we can fix the problem in the future,” Bettencourt said. “What gets measured gets fixed.”
“This sets up a structure for the future,” he added. “This is not an election challenge lawsuit. This is an administrative procedure to address irregularities and trigger an audit if the secretary of state decides one is needed.”
Bettencourt’s bill would have empowered a limited set of individuals involved in the election process to initiate county-level reviews: candidates, election judges, county party chairs, and heads of ballot measure committees.
The requested reviews would pertain to specific issues: action taken by an election officer that appears to violate election code, irregularities in precinct results, and inadequacy or irregularity of required election documentation.
Examples of the types of irregularities that could be reviewed include more votes than voters in a precinct, as happened in Harris County in 2020, and chain of custody issues such as a “lost” ballot box in Midland in 2019 and “misplaced” thumb drives containing voted ballots in Dallas County’s 2020 primaries.
County election officials would have 20 days to respond with an explanation and documentation of what happened to cause the problem, plus an additional 10 days to respond to follow-up requests.
If the county’s response was incomplete, the issue could be escalated to the secretary of state’s office, which would decide whether to conduct an audit. The state was then empowered to act on the audit’s findings by imposing fines for violations not fixed by the county and correcting problems when possible.
The bill also included a “lookback” provision that let a political party chair request an audit of 2020 election irregularities. The county clerk would appoint an audit committee made up of local voters with specific expertise.
“These are things we’ve been working on for years, not something we are trying to do in response to 2020,” State Sen. Bob Hall (R–Edgewood) said Thursday, adding there have been many documented discrepancies in recent years “but no real mechanism for finding out what happened.”
The Senate voted 17-14 to advance the bill, with State Sen. Kel Seliger (R–Amarillo) as the lone Republican in the chamber to oppose the measure.
The legislation didn’t make it to the House.
At least one more special legislative session is expected this year, to address redistricting, but no details are yet available.