Politics

Harris County will consider legal action against Texas over its selection for a 2022 election audit

The audit, for the county was randomly selected last week, comes on top of a separate audit the state is conducting of Harris County’s 2020 election.

Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
Harris County election workers handle ballots Tuesday, March 1, 2022.

Harris County is set to bring legal action against Texas, following the Secretary of State's office's selection of the county for an audit of its 2022 election results. County Attorney Christian Menefee requested permission to pursue the legal action, and Commissioners Court voted 3-2 along party lines to authorize the suit.

Last week, the Secretary of State's Office selected four counties for audit, as required by legislation passed during last year's second special session of the State Legislature (SB 1). The election code required the Secretary of State select four counties for audit – two counties with populations of 300,000 or more, and two with populations less than 300,000.

"We printed each county's name on a slip of paper, and divided the slips into two groups: (1) counties with more than 300,000 in population, and (2) counties with under 300,000 in population. Then, we placed those slips into an empty bucket and had a member of our staff randomly select two counties from each group," said Sam Taylor, Assistant Secretary of State for Communications.

"This the same process we use to determine the ballot order for Constitutional Amendment propositions – they are usually drawn from a cowboy hat or boot," Taylor added.

Texas has 254 counties. Harris County is one of only 18 counties with populations of over 300,000, and it is by far the largest. The other three counties selected were Cameron, Guadalupe, and Eastland Counties.

The audit is part of the new Texas voting law, Senate Bill 1, passed during a special legislative session in 2021. In addition to the statutorily required random audit, the law tightens voting restrictions in the state and limits the ability of Texas counties to control elections.

In a statement, SB 1 co-author state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, called a possible lawsuit “frivolous.”

"The democrat majority on the Harris County Commissioner’s Court has authorized their most ‘frivolous' election lawsuit yet on a partisan 3 to 2 vote,” Bettencourt said. “This time along with County Attorney Menefee, they are disputing the ‘randomness' of an audit selection by the Texas Secretary of State as they were one of two large counties out of 18 selected per an Amendment to SB 1."

In addition, Harris County is already subject to an election audit of its 2020 election results, along with three of the state's other large counties – Dallas, Tarrant, and Collin Counties. That audit came following public pressure from former President Donald Trump.

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said that's no coincidence.

“All of this stems from folks in a certain party using lies about the 2020 election and now subsequent elections for political benefit,” he said.

Menefee said such audits without any evidence of voter fraud could undermine the credibility of the election results.

“Not only do we have these audits, which drain county resources, but we have conspiracy theorists who file lawsuits against Harris County that my office ends up having to defend,” Menefee said.

Republican Commissioner Tom Ramsey spoke up in favor of the need for audits, and against a county lawsuit against the state, by citing recent problems that Harris County has had in tabulating election results, leading to lengthy delays in reporting results.

"I would simply make the case to County Attorney Menefee's point, in terms of a potential lawsuit," Ramsey said, "I would think there's been voter suppression in Harris County, simply because we don't know how to run elections."

Judge Lina Hidalgo countered that many of those difficulties in running elections were the direct result of the conditions put on Harris County by the State Legislature in SB 1. She argued that was the direct result of former President Trump's false claims that the 2020 election had been stolen, and she repeatedly invoked the findings of the congressional investigation into the January 6th insurrection.

"The idea of audits, if it wasn't tainted by January 6th, it sure was tainted by the 2021 decision of the state to issue an audit of Harris County as soon as President Trump asked for their to be one," Hidalgo said. "There is no reason for a politicized and politically motivated election audit, especially after democracy nearly crumbled over this pandering."

Paul Debenedetto contributed to this story.

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Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew heads Houston Public Media's coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments across Greater Houston. Before taking up his current post, Andrew spent five years as Houston Public Media's business reporter, covering the oil...

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