Legislation allowing partisan actors to request election audits has passed in the Texas Senate

The bill, filed by Houston Republican Paul Bettencourt, would allow county party leaders, candidates and political committees to seek an audit.

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 posted at Harris County polling sites are lined up at election headquarters Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, in Houston.

A bill that would allow partisan actors to request an audit of elections in Texas counties passed out of the state Senate on Tuesday.

The bill is not on Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s agenda for the current special legislative session, meaning it’s not eligible for final passage, but Abbott could add it to lawmakers’ to-do list if he chooses.

Still, Senate Bill 47, which was introduced Friday by GOP state Sen. Paul Bettencourt of Houston, narrowly passed the chamber Tuesday. The measure 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 of $500 for 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.

The bill was introduced a little more than a week after former President Donald Trump publicly requested Abbott put such a measure on the special session agenda.

Hours after Trump made his request 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.

Trump has baselessly argued that widespread voter fraud led to his defeat in the 2020 presidential election, and Republicans in a number of states have since initiated reviews of the election, citing distrust among voters. Efforts are underway in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, and a widely discredited review in Arizona concluded last month by reaffirming that President Biden won the state’s largest county.

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.

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 of four counties. 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.”

Texas recently enacted sweeping new voting restrictions, and SB 47 is not the only additional bill state senators are considering. Legislation to increase penalties in cases of alleged illegal voting also passed in the Senate on Tuesday, bringing one of Abbott’s priority bills a step closer to passage.

Additional reporting by Jen Rice.