AUSTIN — Support is growing among Texas Republicans for a push to audit the results of the 2020 election in a state that former president Donald Trump won handily. But the proposal, introduced in the House earlier this month, would only re-examine votes in Texas’s largest counties, most of which went for President Biden.
The legislation, House Bill 241, calls for an independent third party appointed by the state’s top GOP officials to conduct a forensic audit of results in counties with more than 415,000 people. Of the 13 counties that meet that criteria, 10 voted for Biden last year.
The bill’s sponsor, Republican state Rep. Steve Toth, said earlier this week that his constituents are concerned about fraud in the election. In an interview, Toth added that he also became convinced an audit was needed after a meeting earlier this year with U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.), who claimed to have evidence of vote fraud in a 2018 race that he lost.
“No amount of fraud should be acceptable in our election system,” Toth said. “I think it's important that we get to the bottom of this and make sure that people start to believe in their voting system.”
But Democrats and some election officials say there is no need for an audit, pointing out that Republicans have not demonstrated any evidence of widespread fraud in the state.
“We’re chasing ghosts. It has been proven, time and again, that there was no major election fraud. P.S.: Trump won Texas,” said Lorena Perez McGill, a Democrat who lost to Toth in the November election. “So I don’t understand what he seeks to accomplish with this.”
For now, the bill is stalled as House Democrats continue to wait out a 30-day special session in Washington, D.C., denying Republicans a quorum to continue. But the effort is the latest attempt by state lawmakers across the country clamoring for audits following Trump’s false claims of mass voting fraud after his loss.
Toth’s proposal has gained 26 GOP backers since Texas Democrats fled the state. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) tweeted his support for the bill Wednesday, writing, “There is no reason not to do an audit. There is no reason not to know the truth of every election.”
The bill would require a forensic auditor to complete the work by Feb. 1, 2022, and report back to the legislature, “detailing any anomalies or discrepancies in voter data, ballot data or tabulation” in the 13 counties. Among the counties included is Montgomery County, where Toth was reelected in November; the bill’s sponsor declined to say whether he believed there was fraud in his election.
Some experts have argued that a statewide audit could be useful. Such audits are commonplace in close elections or in cases where discrepancies emerged after the fact.
But while Toth said he would support a statewide effort, he also argued the undertaking would be too expensive and time-consuming. Asked if he would consider including some smaller counties, Toth replied, “What’s the point? I mean, all the small counties are red.”
Some experts said Toth’s bill, as written, would probably fail on a technical level in a state where counties use a variety of methods, including paper ballots, preprinted ballots and digital machines.
“I think this is a very poorly thought-out piece of legislation, and a waste of time and money that could be spent on deploying trustworthy voting systems,” said Philip Stark, a statistics professor at the University of California at Berkeley.
Stark worked pro bono with others recently on a forensic audit of a November 2020 election in Windham, N.H., where results from a hand count did not match a machine count. Unlike in Toth’s bill, Stark said, New Hampshire legislators specified how the audit should be done.
“A forensic audit usually means that something went wrong and you’re trying to do a root-cause analysis,” said Stark, whose team in New Hampshire found that folds in the ballots had caused the discrepancy. “This just looks like, ‘Go fishing and figure out what dirt you can find on the election.’”
Some Texas election officials also criticized Toth’s bill, noting that the state ran a successful election despite record numbers of voters during a pandemic. Lisa Johnson, president of the County and District Clerk’s Association of Texas, called it “unnecessary.”
“It’s really frustrating to see them continually make elections more difficult to hold without feeling like you’re being attacked by certain people,” said Johnson, the Republican clerk in Hemphill County.
“People are looking to be relevant,” said Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacquelyn Callanen, whose office is nonpartisan. “But the November elections were safe and secure.”
An audit, Callanen said, “would suck up all the air” and computers for her 21-person staff. Thinking aloud about the machinery, sealed boxes and resources that would be involved, she added, “I can’t imagine.”