Mail clerk Steve Heinrich organizes mail-in ballots at Bexar County Elections Department before the election in November 2020. Secretary of State John Scott’s office on New Year’s Eve released findings from the first stage of the “forensic audit” of the 2020 election, and no widespread voter fraud was reported.
Mail clerk Steve Heinrich organizes mail-in ballots at Bexar County Elections Department before the election in November 2020. Secretary of State John Scott’s office on New Year’s Eve released findings from the first stage of the “forensic audit” of the 2020 election, and no widespread voter fraud was reported. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

It may have been the last official act of 2021 by any Texas state official above the level of a state trooper. Secretary of State John Scott’s office on New Year’s Eve released findings from the first stage of the “forensic audit” of the 2020 election. 

It is an ancient tradition of political practice to release bad news at a time when it is least likely to cause ripples, and nothing fits that bill like New Year’s Eve. Not only are news organizations on holiday staffing, but who watches TV news on New Year’s Eve? For that matter, who is alertly reading the newspaper the next morning? 

What was the bad news? It was the good news that neither Russian hackers nor Venezuelan-based voting machine companies had manipulated or manufactured hundreds of thousands of Texans’ votes to elect Joe Biden president. It was hardly even news at all in that it is exactly what local officials had been saying for more than a year. But for conspiracy theorists it was, to say the least, disappointing.

Perhaps the timing of the release was focused on one particular news consumer, a man who was presumed to be partying New Years Eve and golfing the next day at Mar-a-Lago. 

Donald Trump has a special interest in the audit, which examined election data from four urban Texas counties: Collin, Dallas, Harris and Tarrant. State officials announced the audit in September a few hours after he released a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott pushing for it despite the fact that Trump had carried Texas by nearly 6 points. Since Abbott had recently appointed Scott secretary of state, it’s safe to assume that the governor was involved in generating the audit. Abbott already had put on the agenda and signed into law a special session bill that mandates such audits after future elections.

To all appearances when Trump, who desperately wants to prove massive fraud in the 2020 election,  says “Jump!” Texas’ top officials say “How high?” The answer for now is $4 million high. That’s how much the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the House agreed to take out of the budget for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to fund the audit. This is at a time when 70 percent of the state’s nearly 100 prisons are, barbarously for prisoners and guards, not air-conditioned. 

A second phase of the audit will occur this year and examine other aspects of election processes, including voting machine accuracy and chain of custody records for ballot boxes.

So what did the first phase of the audit find? A key exercise was to select sample precincts and compare the machine counts to paper backup ballot printouts. In Harris County, for example, a review of 10 precincts selected by the secretary of state’s office found a discrepancy between the machine count and the hand count of only five ballots. 

Officials said such discrepancies can be due to counting errors or other glitches. The secretary of state’s office said it would investigate the causes for the discrepancies, but the small number of them clearly shows there was no massive conspiracy skewing the vote totals. 

Conspiracy theory geniuses could object that the backup printouts could also have been hacked. But voters were given copies of the printouts to check and verify before leaving the polls. There would have been loud outcries if they had found their votes to have been changed. 

There’s an old saying — frequently attributed to usual suspects Mark Twain and Yogi Berra but more likely originated by Danish Nobel laureate physicist Niels Bohr — that “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future!” But some predictions are not difficult at all. 

Prediction No. 1: After the $4 million “forensic audit” is completed, there will still be no evidence that the Texas election was meaningfully compromised.

Prediction No. 2: The audit results won’t satisfy Trump, who called the Texas audit “weak” before the results came in. He also called the U.S. election itself “rigged” before the votes were counted. Or he may just make fantasy statements about the audit’s results. In September when the notorious Republican-led audit in Arizona confirmed that Biden won the state, Trump responded by saying, “We won on the Arizona forensic audit yesterday at a level that you wouldn’t believe.”

Prediction No. 3: The audit also will fail to convince a meaningful portion of the majority of Republicans who don’t believe Biden was fairly elected. 

Prediction No. 4: In next year’s legislative session, “election security” will continue to be used in an attempt to keep a lid on voter turnout, especially in big cities.

Rick Casey

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.