By Robert Downen, The Texas Tribune
“Texas Secretary of State John Scott says our elections are secure, but he sometimes muddles that message” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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Editor’s note: This story contains explicit language.
Speaking in July to a group of concerned conservative voters in Dallas, Texas Secretary of State John Scott declared that Texas elections were the nation’s most secure.
But just a few minutes earlier, he was joking with the crowd about a Texas county with more voters than residents, rumors of dead men voting and stories of electioneering dating back to Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1948 senatorial campaign.
“Cheating is not something that’s isolated to Democrats or Republicans,” Scott said to members of the Dallas Jewish Conservatives that summer evening. “People have been cheating in elections for as long as there’s been elections. The trick is to try and catch them.”
Then, Scott fielded questions from the group who expressed serious skepticism about the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election results. Over the next hour and a half, Scott batted down disproven claims of widespread fraud and, in one instance, briefly defended himself from insinuations that he too was part of the anti-democratic scheme that audience members were convinced was happening in real time.
The evening was in many ways emblematic of Scott’s tenure as the state’s chief elections officer, marked by occasional mixed messages in an effort to build trust in an election system without alienating a base of voters who increasingly view election denialism as a party platform.
Scott’s resume has complicated that mission: Prior to his October 2021 appointment by Gov. Greg Abbott, Scott briefly represented former President Donald Trump in a fruitless lawsuit challenging the 2020 election results, and his predecessor in the secretary of state’s office was not confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate after saying repeatedly that there was no evidence of widespread fraud. Scott awaits confirmation in next year’s legislative session.
In an interview last week, Scott expressed some regret about his choice of words when talking to the Dallas Jewish Conservatives group earlier this year. But Scott said he has not spread election misinformation, whether that night or throughout his yearlong tenure. Rather, he said, he has sought to meet people where they are as a means of gaining trust and assuage their concerns through transparency.
“Am I probably more flippant than most? Yes,” he said. “Are there better public speakers? I’m sure there probably are. Are there better messengers? Yeah, I’m sure there’s better messengers. But I don’t know that there’s a better way to convey a message to someone that may not necessarily be open to your message other than being a little understanding of, potentially, how they got where they are.”
Over the course of his tenure, Scott has repeatedly insisted that Joe Biden is the rightful president and that Texas’ elections are and have been free, fair and secure.
“Our elections are more accessible and safer than they’ve ever been,” he told The Texas Tribune last week.
At the same time, Scott has on occasion given oxygen to the very misinformation that he now battles full time, including through his office’s audits of elections in four of the state’s largest — and mostly Democratic-leaning — counties. Those audits are rooted in false claims that the 2020 election was stolen, and have yet to produce any evidence of serious fraud. Yet Scott has continued to justify the reviews by saying they will provide transparency and assuage the concerns of those who’ve bought in to disproven conspiracy theories.
Voting rights groups see it otherwise and fear his pronouncements on election integrity are too little, too late. They say Scott’s ties to myth-spreading Republican leaders — and his willingness to go along with audits — have needlessly injected more doubt into an already skeptical electorate ahead of a consequential midterm election. And they worry that Scott has helped lay the groundwork for a new round of even stricter voting rules — enhancements of laws that have already disenfranchised many Texans.
“He’s supposed to act as an arbiter of truth when it comes to elections,” said Alice Huling, senior legal counsel for voting rights at the Campaign Legal Center, a watchdog nonprofit founded by the former Republican chair of the Federal Election Commission that has previously sued Scott’s office over voting laws.
Huling said election officials across the country need to be much more vocal in denouncing those in their own party who have spread misinformation.
“It is not sufficient to just throw your hands up and say, ‘I’m not pushing conspiracy theories,’” she said.
Facts, not narratives
Skepticism of Scott’s handling of election fraud myths predates his appointment as Texas’ chief elections officer by Abbott, under whom Scott served as deputy attorney general for civil litigation. In that role, Scott helped defend Texas’ 2014 voter identification law that was eventually rewritten after district and federal courts found it intentionally discriminatory.
His appointment to secretary of state last year immediately prompted alarm bells among watchdog groups, who noted that Scott had briefly represented Trump in an ill-fated lawsuit challenging the 2020 election results in Pennsylvania — one of the 50-plus court actions pursued by the former president that showed no evidence of widespread voter fraud. At the time, Texas was among numerous states disputing the election outcome in court, despite assurances from top Trump allies — including former Attorney General William Barr — that the election was fair.
Scott quickly got to work explaining his time with the Trump campaign as brief — “one business day” — and said it was prompted by what he saw as an “interesting case and set of facts” that eventually changed and caused him to step down from the lawsuit. He also said that Biden was unquestionably the president of the United States and that he did not personally see any issues when he voted in 2020. But Scott declined to agree with claims from his predecessor’s office that the 2020 election was “smooth and secure,” and instead said he would prioritize the four county-level ballot audits. The audits followed months of pressure from Trump throughout 2021 for a review of election results in numerous states — including Texas, despite Trump winning the state by more than 600,000 votes.
Abbott’s appointment of Scott — which did not mention his work for Trump — was also concerning to voting rights groups because of who he would replace: former Secretary of State Ruth Hughs, who did not support Trump’s claims of election fraud and later resigned after the Texas Senate refused to take up her confirmation.
Scott has repeatedly vowed to let the results of the county audits speak for themselves. His office released the findings of the first phase of those audits on New Year’s Eve 2021. The review found no substantive differences between electronic and mail ballot counts or evidence to support claims of widespread fraud. A second round of findings is expected toward the end of this year.
Scott continues to characterize his office’s mission as one of simple due diligence and says that he is seeking, above all else, radical transparency and fact-based reviews that he hopes will restore confidence among an increasingly skeptical GOP base.
“The goal is not to address every issue people have,” he said last year. It’s “to be fair, to be impartial. I think it’s to make sure we don’t base our report on narratives.”
Ahead of the midterms, he has taken a much more proactive approach to countering voter fraud conspiracy theories. His office recently released a series of videos meant to combat misinformation. In a handful of interviews, he has decried the threats, intimidation and overbearing information requests from activists that have inundated local election offices in the lead-up to the midterm elections. And his hands-on approach has earned him plaudits from some county-level officials.
“Secretary Scott has worked harder than any secretary since I’ve been here, and there have been three or four since I’ve been here,” said Jennifer Doinoff, the Republican elections administrator for Hays County, which has been targeted by conspiracists over the last year. “He’s worked very hard to combat misinformation. He’s done a really good job with visiting with the counties, engaging with these local groups and talking to them.”
But voting rights groups say Scott should have better used the bully pulpit of his office to push against those doing the duping. They say that Scott’s proximity to prominent election-deniers has made it difficult to trust what he says — and has created ambiguity that fuels fraud myths.
For example: At the July event with the Dallas Jewish Conservatives, much of the conversation centered around “2000 Mules,” a widely debunked propaganda film by longtime GOP political operative Dinesh D’Souza that alleges there was serious fraud at drop-off ballot locations in 2020. The film has been promoted by top Texas Republicans, including Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office, which oversees the exceedingly rare number of voter fraud prosecutions in the state. At the event, Scott spoke alongside Texas Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, who also represented Trump and has been a key driver of more restrictive voting laws.
While Scott did note that the premise of the film was not applicable to Texas because the state does not use drop-off balloting, he did not reject D’Souza’s debunked theory outright.
“It’s really amazing,” Scott said of the film, which he said he had recently watched. “You get an enormous amount of information … and I guess it’s scary, right? It leaves you a little angry, a little scared that that’s going on.”
Scott has since explained those comments: “My point is that none of that stuff took place in Texas,” he said last month. “I didn’t do a great deal of research on what happened in other states. So I don’t know if voter fraud was widespread or not.”
Meanwhile, Texans’ faith in the electoral process continues to falter: Recent polling found Republicans in the state are more than three times more likely to worry about illegal ballots than their Democratic counterparts and three times more likely to call for strict voting laws.
Across the state, election offices have for months faced a deluge of threats, intimidation, harassment and overbearing information requests, prompting a mass and unprecedented exodus of election officials. At the same time, county officials say they’ve seen an influx of partisan poll watchers, many emboldened and empowered by the Legislature last year and enraged by the voting fraud myths spread primarily by the right.
In Gillespie County, for example, the entire elections divisions resigned earlier this year after a campaign of harassment by activists and conspiracy theorists, including over a run-of-the-mill vote in 2019 to add fluoride to the water.
And in September, Scott attended a routine demonstration of Texas voting machine security in Hays County that devolved into a hostile interrogation by election skeptics over the reliability of the equipment. Doinoff, who has been complimentary of Scott’s work on misinformation, said it has become increasingly clear that some activists have been too radicalized to reason with. It’s made for a difficult election season, she said, and has weakened her staff’s morale.
“It is exhausting,” she said. “Some of our employees are feeling burnout, and I do see a lot of exhaustion and frustration.”
Some of the harassment has been directed at Scott, too. In an interview last month with Texas Monthly, Scott again proclaimed that the 2020 election was not stolen and disputed the findings of “2000 Mules.” His office was immediately inundated by angry voters, some of them threatening.
“You little RINO piece of shit,” one man said in a voicemail that Scott’s office provided to the Tribune. “We want everyone in this country to see what you goddamn bastards did to this country. … There’s a reason Trump reinstituted capital punishment as hanging and firing squads.”
Scott said he’s been surprised by the vitriol that’s been flung at his office and other county elections administrators over the last year.
“I think there’s a group of people that make a living off of spreading misinformation,” Scott said last week. “I think that there are some people that are absolutely mentally disturbed out there, and this gives them a purpose.”
He added that the issue didn’t emerge overnight or even in the past year — it has been “getting more and more aggravated, probably over the last six years.”
“I probably was informed enough to know that it was not necessarily going to be a clover patch here. But I don’t know that I was fully anticipating as much venom,” he said.
At the same time, he is adamant that the misinformation comes from both sides of the political aisle — from both those concerned about voter fraud myths and from those concerned that voter fraud myths will lead to stricter voting laws.
Last year, the Texas Legislature strengthened the state’s voting laws in response to the same unfounded voter fraud myths that Scott is now trying to tamp down. In this year’s primary, 12% of mail-in ballots were rejected — compared to around 1% in the 2020 election cycle — and a recent analysis found that ballots from Asian and Latino voters were more than 50% more likely to be rejected than those from white voters.
Voting rights groups say voting fraud myths are a part of a long-term Republican strategy and that, inadvertently or not, Scott’s approach to his office has helped provide a pretext for stricter laws when the Legislature meets again next year.
“They have to have a long-term strategy to make voting more difficult. … They’re not just thinking about 2022. They’re thinking 2024, 2026, 2028 and 2030,” said Matt Angle, founder and director of the Lone Star Project. “They’re trying to create an atmosphere in which voting — and hoping in voting — is risky.”
Scott declined to say whether he would support a new round of tighter voting laws next year, saying it would be improper for his office to lobby for legislation. And he pushed back repeatedly against criticisms that he hadn’t done enough to condemn other leaders’ spreading of misinformation or that, by continuing to pursue audits of the 2020 election, he is helping undermine confidence in the election process. To do otherwise, he said, would mean giving credence to the “narratives” he says he must avoid.
“I will promise you we won’t be making recommendations about any kind of policy decisions like that,” he said. “What we will do is give a report.”
As for the midterm elections, he said he’s confident that things will go smoothly — and that, despite what others might say, Texas’ elections are fair and secure.
“If (Texans) take the time to vote, they can be sure that their vote is going to count,” he said.
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/11/01/texas-elections-john-scott-secretary-state/.
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