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First part of Texas’ 2020 election audit reveals few issues, echoes findings from review processes already in place

 A man wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a mask is seen voting at the Audelia Road Branch Library in Dallas on the first day of early voting on Oct. 13, 2020.
Montinique Monroe
The Texas Tribune
Voters cast their ballots at Audelia Road Branch Library in Dallas on the first day of early voting on Oct. 13, 2020.

An initial review of four counties’ election results — launched after pressure from former President Donald Trump and touted by GOP leaders — showed few discrepancies between electronic and hand counts of ballots in a sample of voting precincts.

The Texas secretary of state’s office has released the first batch of results from its review into the 2020 general election, finding few issues despite repeated, unsubstantiated claims by GOP leaders casting doubts on the integrity of the electoral system.

The first phase of the review, released New Year’s Eve, highlighted election data from four counties — Harris, Dallas, Tarrant and Collin — that showed few discrepancies between electronic and hand counts of ballots in a sample of voting precincts. Those partial manual counts made up a significant portion of the results produced by the secretary of state, which largely focused on routine voter roll maintenance and post-election processes that were already in place before the state launched what it has labeled as a “full forensic audit.”

On Friday, Samuel Taylor, a spokesperson with the secretary of state’s office, said the review was needed “to provide clarity on what issues need to be resolved for the next elections.”

But Remi Garza, president of the Texas Association of Election Administrators, said there wasn’t anything in the review’s first set of results that raised any alarms for him.

“There doesn’t seem to be anything too far out of the ordinary with respect to the information that’s provided,” said Garza, who serves as the election administrator in Cameron County. “… I hope nobody draws any strong conclusions one way or the other with respect to the information that’s been provided. I think it’s just very straightforward, very factual and will ultimately play a part in the final conclusions that are drawn once the second phase is completed.”

According to the state’s review of the counties’ partial manual counts, which they are already required to conduct under state law, there were few differences between electronic and manual ballot tallies — and counties were able to justify those inconsistencies.

In Collin County, for example, a partial manual count of ballots in three precincts found a vote discrepancy of 17. County officials said the difference was attributable to curbside voters who are allowed to vote from their cars using machines that do not produce a paper record, according to the state’s report.

Dallas County had a vote discrepancy of 10 across seven precincts, but the state’s report says that appeared to have resulted from a data entry error when county officials first reported the results of the partial manual count to the state.

The manual counts showed a mail-in ballot discrepancy of five votes in 10 Harris County precincts, which county officials said was caused by an “an error in the manual counting” of the ballots.

Tarrant County had zero discrepancies in the sample of seven precincts it was required to review.

In November 2020, votes from the four counties under review made up about 4 million — or about 35% — of the 11.3 million votes cast statewide.

Although the secretary of state’s office has dubbed its review a “full forensic audit” of the election, the first phase of the review includes partial manual counts of ballots and security assessments, which all counties are already required to undergo as part of the typical election process. State law requires partial manual counts to be conducted within 72 hours of polls closing after every election.

The second phase, which will take place in 2022, will be an examination of election records “to ensure election administration procedures were properly followed,” according to documentation previously released by the state. That includes reviews of records of voting machine accuracy tests, rosters for early voting, and forms detailing chain of custody for sealed ballot boxes and other election materials maintained by the counties. In its New Year’s Eve report, the state said it would also use these examinations to review the causes for the vote discrepancies captured in the partial manual counts.

The much-hyped four-county review by the secretary of state’s office, the state agency that oversees elections, was announced in September, just hours after former President Donald Trump publicly pressed Gov. Greg Abbott to add election audit legislation to the agenda for the state’s third special legislative session last fall. As part of his baseless effort to cast doubt on the outcome of his failed reelection bid, Trump’s call came despite the lack of evidence of irregularities in the state’s election — and the fact that he won the state.

The official overseeing the review, Secretary of State John Scott, previously helped Trump challenge 2020 election results in Pennsylvania. Appointed to the position by Abbott, Scott said in an October interview with The Texas Tribune that President Joe Biden won the 2020 election and that he has “not seen anything” to suggest that the election was stolen from Trump.

In a statement on Friday, Isabel Longoria, election administrator for Harris County, said the Harris County clerk’s office “processed, checked, and balanced a fair and accurate election in November 2020.” After conducting a hand count of mail-in ballots from the 2020 election, Longoria said her office “found no notable concerns.”

“Conducting a hand-count on a scale as large as the November 2020 election is an intensive process,” Longoria said. “The process included manually sorting 179,174 ballots by precinct, followed by a hand-count for 10 precincts that were designated by the Secretary of State. Despite this challenge, our team was able to match the count with a discrepancy of only five ballots.”

The state’s progress report for phase one of its audit also included data related to regular maintenance of the state’s massive list of registered voters — it surpassed 16.9 million in November 2020 — that goes beyond its four-county review. But some of the figures highlighted by the state either appear to be faulty or remain unverified.

For example, the secretary of state’s office noted it had sent counties a list of 11,737 records of registered voters it deemed “possible non-U.S. citizens.” But the Tribune previously reported that scores of citizens, including many who registered to vote at their naturalization ceremonies, were marked for review.

Although it has yet to finish investigating the records, the state also included an unverified figure of 509 voter records — about 0.0045% of the 11.3 million votes cast in November 2020 — in which a voter may have cast a vote in Texas and another state or jurisdiction. The state said the work of reviewing those records to eliminate those that were “erroneously matched” because of data issues wouldn’t be completed until January.

The state also highlighted the investigation of 67 votes — about 0.0006% of the votes cast in the 2020 general election — cast by “potentially deceased voters.” This review also has not been completed.

In its report, the secretary of state emphasized that the removal of ineligible or deceased voters from the voter rolls “in and of itself does not indicate that any illegal votes were cast.”

“These maintenance activities are prescribed by state law to ensure the integrity and accuracy of the statewide voter registration list,” the report reads. “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.”

The state has a shoddy history of reviewing the voter rolls for ineligible individuals. In 2012, the state settled a lawsuit over its flawed effort to remove dead people from the rolls in which thousands of Texans received letters asking them to prove they were alive. The state’s first effort to scour the rolls for supposed noncitizens in 2019 produced a botched review that jeopardized the voting rights of tens of thousands of naturalized citizens, which it was forced to abandon after being sued in federal court.

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.

From The Texas Tribune