Harris County commissioners voted 3-2 at the Aug. 2 commissioners court meeting to authorize the county attorney to take legal action regarding the 2022 elections audit by the Texas Secretary of State’s Office.
The audit will be the second in two years; the county is undergoing a separate audit of its 2020 elections, which the Texas Secretary of State’s Office announced in September.
Section 127.351 of Texas Senate Bill 1, which passed in September, dictates the state conduct random audits in four counties—two of which must have a population of over 300,000—immediately after November elections in even-numbered years. The audit covers elections from the previous two years but would not include the Nov. 3, 2020 general election, as it falls outside of the two-year window, according to Sam Taylor, assistant secretary of state for communications of the Texas Secretary of State's Office.
County Attorney Christian Menefee spoke virtually at the Aug. 2 meeting and took issue with what he saw as a lack of transparency around the audit selection process. He said his office is not aware of any rules from the Texas Secretary of State’s Office guiding the selection process, and neither his office nor the Office of the Elections Administrator had received prior written notice of the drawing.
“As recently as two weeks ago, they made no mention of the selection process,” Menefee said. “Had we known that this was going on, we would have ensured that somebody was there to ... ensure transparency in the process.”
The Secretary of State’s Office announced via social media on July 28 that Harris, Cameron, Eastland and Guadalupe counties had been selected.
At the time, the county had not yet established the position of an elections administrator, so the election was run jointly by the county clerk and tax-assessor collector.
Interim Elections Administrator Beth Stevens said her office has not yet received an outline of how the actual audit process would be conducted, but it is her understanding her office would not have to prepare for the audit until after the November elections.
“We are still undergoing the initial November 2020 audit, and we are in weekly communication with the Secretary of State’s audit division about that,” Stevens said. “As we get closer to November, there may be a time that comes where we have to sort of put that on pause so that we can fully focus back on preparing for the November 2022 election.”
Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey and Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle opposed the motion. Citing prior election difficulties in the county, including 10,000 lost ballots and inadequately trained election workers, Ramsey said the county was not yet at the point where it could run a reliable, stable election.
“If there’s any county in the state that needed auditing, it’s Harris County, whether they draw your name out of a hat or not,” Ramsey said. “We ought to get audited simply because of the problems we’ve had in the county.”
Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis requested the elections office calculate both the cost of the current audit to the county as well as estimate the cost for a second audit. Stevens said the current audit requires the county to pay for staff time, adding that the new audit law says the county would not pay for the audit but does not specify whether staff time would be included.