I was fascinated by this Texas Monthly feature on Secretary of State John Scott, who is being pushed to reckon with the insane and dangerous levels of election denial and anti-democratic activism. I’m pretty sure he gets it, he just doesn’t want to say it or to suggest answers for it.
Take pity on John Scott. In October 2021, Governor Greg Abbott appointed the Fort Worth attorney as Secretary of State, Texas’s top elections official. He immediately found himself in the hot seat, targeted by voting rights activists aggrieved by what they saw as Republican-led voter suppression and by conspiracy theorists inflamed by former president Donald Trump’s claims of a stolen election. Scott, who had previously served under Abbott as deputy attorney general for civil litigation and COO of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, told Texas Monthly at the time that his top priority was “bringing the temperature down.” This proved harder than he anticipated.
Scott’s first major task was to conduct a “full forensic audit” of the 2020 general election in the two largest Democrat-led counties, Dallas and Harris, and the two largest Republican-led counties, Collin and Tarrant. The audit was demanded by Trump—even though he won Texas by more than five percentage points—and had been agreed to, less than nine hours after Trump issued his demand, by the Secretary of State office (the top post was then vacant). The effort immediately drew scorn from both liberals, who denounced it as a capitulation to election deniers, and Trump himself, who complained that limiting the audit to four counties was “weak.”
Phase one of the audit examined voting-machine accuracy, cybersecurity, and potentially ineligible voters. Quietly released last New Year’s Eve, it found nothing unusual about the election. The results of the second phase, a more detailed review of all available records from the four counties, are scheduled to be released later this year.
The inability to please either liberals or conservatives has been the hallmark of Scott’s tenure. He drew bipartisan criticism for the high rejection rate for mail-in ballots (12 percent) during this year’s primary election—an all-too-predictable result of the confusing new vote-by-mail rules imposed by Senate Bill 1, which the Republican-controlled Legislature passed last year over vehement Democratic opposition. Scott’s attempt to fulfill SB 1’s strict voter list–maintenance requirements led his office to challenge the citizenship status of nearly 12,000 registered voters, at least some of whom turned out to be on the list by mistake. His office was sued by a coalition of voting rights groups, including the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which has called the list “a surgical strike against voters of color.” (The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently ruled that Scott did not have to divulge the list; the plaintiffs are deciding whether to appeal.)
With early voting for the November general election just weeks away, Texas Monthly decided to check in with the embattled Secretary of State. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Texas Monthly: The voting-machine test you attended in Hays County got pretty rowdy. What was that like?
John Scott: The local elections administrator in Hays County invited us down to film a public service announcement. It kind of devolved into a little bit of a question-and-answer session [with the activists]. I felt bad that it became disruptive to the process we were all there for. Part of my job is answering questions. But a lot of the people who have questions, it’s the misinformed and the uninformed.
The misinformed people seem like they really don’t care. They know something, and they’re going to stick to it no matter what you tell them. You can talk until you’re blue in the face. With the uninformed, we have to reach out and tell them the truth. Otherwise there will only be bad information circling around. The shouting eventually ended and they did calm down. I think there were several protesters who accepted a lot of what I was saying.
TM: Why do you think so many people are angry about these issues?
JS: I don’t know why. If I did, we would address it immediately. There’s a lack of information, and then there’s people out there filling that lack of information with stories that are simply not true. I have yet to hear about or meet any elections administrator in the state who is not trying to do a perfect job. We’re all humans, and so we’re all prone to error. It seems like, a lot of times, people latch on to those errors and ascribe motives. I don’t know how we stop that other than to continually address it. It’s like Whac-A-Mole.
TM: Earlier this year, the Brennan Center for Justice conducted a survey of election workers across the country. It found that one in every six workers has received threats because of their job. In Texas, the top three election administrators in Gillespie County recently resigned because of harassment. Tarrant County election administrator Heider Garcia received death threats after being the subject of a conspiracy theory involving his prior employment by voting-machine manufacturer Smartmatic. How big of a problem is this?
JS: It’s a huge problem. Heider and his deputy both carry guns now. They don’t bring them into polling places, because that’s illegal, but they have to have a gun on them. Which is pathetic—the fact that they’re in that much fear of their life, that it’s gotten that heated. I think it’s obscene. In Gillespie County I visited with the county judge and let him know we were here to help in any way possible, given the situation they had. Everybody over there had glowing comments about the elections administrator. She was somebody you would want as your neighbor, and somebody you’d want as your public servant in charge of elections.
I’ve gotten death threats; my folks in the elections division have gotten death threats. It’s become absurd, and I don’t know what’s caused it.
TM: What steps has your office taken to ensure election workers can safely carry out their duties?
JS: We tell each county that if they get threats of any kind to report it to their local law enforcement agency immediately. That’s what we did with our own death threats. This is insanity—you can’t have people receiving death threats for doing their jobs.
TM: You say you’re not sure why it’s gotten so intense. But surely former president Trump’s repeated claims of a stolen election have something to do with it.
JS: Any time the temperature gets turned up, it’s possible to have nuts making these statements. At least in our office, what I was told is that these threats long preceded the 2020 election. The Infowars guy [Alex Jones] has unleashed hell on our election people. This has been going on for many years. And I don’t want to give a free pass to people who are crazy enough to go out there and say they’re going to kill somebody because they’re doing their job. I don’t want to give them an excuse—”Oh, well, it’s because somebody said something.” No, that behavior is unacceptable under any scenario. Just because somebody said something, or they saw something on TV, that doesn’t excuse it.
“Pity” is not the word that comes to mind. I don’t care for John Scott, but I’ll admit to some sympathy for him. He’s facing the heat out there as well as the front-line county election workers, and that’s a lot more than any of our elected state leaders are doing. I take his point about misinformed versus uninformed voters as well, though it sure would be nice if someone like him were a much louder advocate for good information and putting a sufficient amount of resources into combatting that misinformation.
And look, this guy isn’t dumb. He knows what the problem is and who’s causing it, he just doesn’t want to call out his own team. It’s the opposite of courageous, but it’s human enough that I can at least see why he’s being so timid. But those county election administrators are out there getting pummeled, working insane hours, and generally burning themselves out, without any clear sign that the state has their backs. It’s not sustainable, not to mention inhumane and dangerous. How about loudly pushing for state resources to find, arrest, and prosecute people who are threatening these folks? How about urging the AG to look into curbing or at least slowing down these mountains of public record requests, especially from out of state activists, which are basically a denial of service attack on the counties? How about asking your buddy Greg Abbott to say something? There’s a lot John Scott can do even if he’s just an administrator himself. If I saw him doing more of it, even if “it” is just trying to get those with the real power to do something, I’d have a lot more respect for him.