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Texas lawmakers are debating a bill that would allow partisan actors to request election audits

Signs which will be posted at Harris County polling sites are lined up at election headquarters Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, in Houston.
AP Photo
David J. Phillip
Signs which will be posted at Harris County polling sites are lined up at election headquarters Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, in Houston.

Partisan actors would be able to request an audit of elections in Texas counties under a new bill being fast-tracked through the Texas Senate, despite not being added by Gov. Greg Abbott to the special session agenda.

Senate Bill 47 was introduced Friday by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, and would allow county party leaders, candidates, judges and political committees to formally ask the Texas secretary of state’s office to review any “irregularities” in an election.

The bill analysis references a “significant number of irregularities that occurred yet were not addressed” in the November 2020 election, though it does not specifically mention what those irregularities were.

If the secretary of state’s office does find violations, it could levy a fine for $500 to each violation that is not remedied in 30 days.

“I think it’s…important that we set up that, regardless of where you are in the state, if you have a legitimate question about election irregularity, that you get an answer,” Bettencourt said in a Senate committee hearing Monday. “And there is a penalty at the end, if there’s noncompliance, of $500 a day. And that’s to finally make sure that this process comes to a close.”

But Stephanie Gómez, associate director of Common Cause Texas, said the bill would create chaos in the election process.

“The process creates confusion and distrust in our democracy, inflames suspicion in the myth of rampant voter fraud, and keeps alive the hopes of those who were so consumed with sowing disbelief in our democracy and chasing conspiracy theories that they literally led an attack on the U.S. Capitol not even a year ago," Gómez said.

Lawmakers took testimony despite the fact that the bill is not currently on the call for the third special session, which means it's not eligible for final passage at this time. Gov. Abbott, who has sole discretion over what gets placed on the call, could place it on the next special session agenda if one is required, but so far has declined to commit to doing so.

It was later passed out of committee Monday night.

The bill was introduced a little more than a week after President Donald Trump publicly requested Abbott put such a measure on the special session agenda. Trump has argued without evidence that widespread voter fraud led to his defeat in the 2020 presidential election. At least 63 lawsuits seeking to throw out votes in some states were dismissed after judges discovered no evidence to support fraud claims.

Hours after Trump made his request for an audit on Sept. 24, the secretary of state’s office announced an audit into Harris, Dallas, Tarrant and Collin counties, only one of which — Collin County — voted for the former president.

As of Monday, Harris County had still not received requests for records related to the audit from the secretary of state’s office, according the Harris County attorney's office.

In an email, Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said the bill was “another attempt to spread the Big Lie perpetuated by Donald Trump.”

“This proposed bill will only undermine faith in our elections, burden our election officials, and waste taxpayer dollars just to appease a few people searching for a problem where there isn't one,” Menefee said. “We will continue to watch this bill closely and consider our legal options."

Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

There is currently no Texas secretary of state after the retirement of Ruth Hughs in May, and it was not immediately clear who ordered the audit. A spokesperson for the governor has confirmed that Deputy Secretary of State Joe Esparza is now leading the office on an interim basis.

But even the secretary of state’s office itself has sought to dismiss claims of widespread fraud in Texas. Earlier this year, a deputy for Hughs told state lawmakers that “Texas had an election that was smooth and secure.”
Copyright 2021 Houston Public Media News 88.7. To see more, visit Houston Public Media News 88.7.

Andrew Schneider
Paul DeBenedetto
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