In 2021, the Texas Secretary of State launched a full forensic audit of the state’s two largest Democratic and two largest Republican counties: Dallas, Harris, Collin, and Tarrant. An initial report released earlier this year outlined problems with voter registrations, including possibly more than 11,000 potential non-citizen registrations, but the second phase included additional analysis of equipment, election procedures, chain of custody protocols, and record-keeping.
“Texas has some of the strongest and most effective transparency measures in the country when it comes to administering and auditing elections,” said Secretary of State John Scott in a statement.
“The Texas forensic election audit – which is by far the largest undertaken in the nation to date – demonstrates how these measures can and should be used to make sure Texas voters can have confidence in the outcome of any given election as well as which areas counties need to address to restore confidence going forward.”
The 359-page report released Monday by the secretary of state’s Forensic Audit Division (FAD) warns that the four counties did not maintain the same data nor use the same methods, making it difficult to provide consistent comparisons. The FAD also notes that Harris County elections personnel did not cooperate with auditors until October 2022 and never responded to some requests for information.
Among findings, FAD reports that Harris County failed to follow procedures in managing “drive-thru” voting and did not create proper chain of custody documentation for 184,999 ballots. The county also failed to maintain documentation for 17 mobile ballot boxes (MBB) that account for nearly 125,000 cast votes.
During the 2020 general election, then-interim Harris County clerk Chris Hollins instituted drive-thru voting during the early vote period. But after a federal court judge expressed doubt about its legality, Hollins canceled all but one of the 10 drive-thru sites planned for Election Day.
In addition to issues with the MBBs, Harris County’s records from at least 26 early voting locations and eight Election Day polling locations do not match, meaning the county has not followed record maintenance procedures. In response to requests from FAD to recover data, Harris County admitted that some of the original equipment needed to generate audit reports had been destroyed by the county.
State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), a former Harris County voter registrar, told The Texan he considered the discrepancies outlined in the report “malfeasance.”
“This audit report has 17 MBBs, also known as tabulation units, created by the elections administration with 124,630 vote records with no recorded documentation whatsoever. No one knows if these votes were correctly tallied. It’s beyond irresponsible and unconscionable that former clerk Chris Hollins could do this.”
Auditors reported a different set of issues for Dallas County, where electronic equipment created at least 188 “phantom voters,” 318 provisional ballots were misplaced, and there was a 1,156 discrepancy between mail ballots tabulated and those included in the official canvass.
In addition, FAD says that a single person assisted 393 voters in completing Dallas County mail ballot applications.
By contrast, FAD found few issues with Collin County and praised practices there as “commendable” and yielding few discrepancies. In 2020, Collin County processed approximately 448,000 voters compared to Harris County’s nearly 1.5 million.
FAD also praised Tarrant County for administering a “quality, transparent election.”
“When the Texas Election Code and local procedures are followed, Texas voters should have a very high level of confidence in the accuracy of the outcome of Texas elections,” FAD Director Chad Ennis wrote in the executive summary of the report. “Each of the four counties has detailed procedures and detailed forms to document compliance with the code and ensure that only lawful ballots are cast and counted.”
“In most cases, the audit found that the counties followed their procedures and clearly documented their activities. In some cases, however, they did not. As outlined in this Report, in cases where procedures were not followed, discrepancies and irregularities ranging from small to large ensued.”
Most of the issues found with Harris County’s elections had been previously revealed last October when Ennis requested that newly appointed county elections administrator Clifford Tatum provide plans for correcting the 2020 problems in the course of this year’s elections.
Harris County’s 2022 general election made national news for a slew of other Election Day snafus that included delayed openings, malfunctioning equipment, improper procedures, and a paper ballot shortage that led to the closures of multiple voting sites.
The district attorney’s office is conducting an investigation into criminal complaints over the election, the Harris County Republican Party has filed a lawsuit, and two candidates have already filed election contests.
In the fractious 2021 legislative session, during which Democrats repeatedly attempted to block a quorum necessary to enact legislation, state lawmakers strengthened aspects of the Texas election code and required counties to submit election reconciliation reports.
For the 2022 general election, Harris County has provided three versions of a reconciliation report and still has not resolved a mail ballot discrepancy of more than 6,000 votes.
Harris County was also one of four randomly chosen by the secretary of state’s office to undergo another full forensic audit of all elections since 2020, including the 2022 general election.
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Holly Hansen is a reporter for The Texan living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.