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Paxton issues deranged opinion on access to ballots

This is utterly chaotic. And completely out of the blue.

Best mugshot ever

A legal opinion released by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton last week will almost certainly throw county elections offices into chaos after November, experts say, exposing election clerks to possible criminal charges and materially reducing the security of every ballot cast in the state.

Federal and state law require that ballots be kept secure for 22 months after an election to allow for recounts and challenges — a time frame Texas counties have had set in place for decades. Paxton’s opinion, which doesn’t stem from any change to state law, theoretically permits anyone — an aggrieved voter, activist or out-of-state entity — to request access to ballots as soon as the day after they are counted. Such requests have been used by activists all over the country as a way to “audit” election results.

The opinion from Paxton doesn’t carry the force of law, but experts say it will almost certainly serve as the basis for a lawsuit by right-wing activists. The opinion has already impacted elections administrators across the state, who told Votebeat that they’ve seen an onslaught of requests since Paxton released it.

“[Paxton’s office wants] to throw a monkey wrench into the operations of vote counting, especially if they think they might lose, and Paxton is in a close race as far as I can tell,” said Linda Eads, a professor at Southern Methodist University’s Dedman School of Law and a former deputy attorney general for litigation for the state of Texas. She said she was “shocked” by the opinion.

[…]

Paxton’s office sought input from the secretary of state’s office prior to issuing the decision, which was requested by state Sen. Kelly Hancock and state Rep. Matt Krause, both Republicans. In no uncertain terms, the secretary of state’s office  — which is run by a Republican appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott — recommended keeping the current waiting period.

“The voted ballots are the core of the election process and the prohibition on disturbing the ballots (except in limited circumstances as permitted by the Election Code) preserves the integrity of the election itself,” wrote Adam Bitter, general counsel for the office, in a letter obtained by Votebeat through a public records request. “Handling of the voted ballots themselves opens up the possibility of accidental or intentional damage or misplacement that could call into question the election after the fact.”

Paxton’s office did not respond to specific questions about why he disagreed with Bitter’s conclusion, nor did he respond to requests for comment.

For months, election administrators in Texas and across the country have been fielding records requests from activists intent on re-examining every ballot cast in every election since November 2020 — or, in some cases, even earlier. In Tarrant County, volunteers with a conservative group occupied a room in the elections office for weeks this summer, examining 300,000 ballots from the March 2020 primary, which were made available by the county 22 months after the election.

Ballots are kept in secure lock boxes for 60 days, and then transferred to another secure facility for the remainder of the waiting period in order to comply with the Civil Rights Act of 1960, a federal law which, in part, requires ballots be securely stored for 22 months. In 2017, the Republican-dominated Texas Legislature even amended state law to specify “22 months,” updating state standards to mirror federal requirements.

In the letter to the attorney general’s office, Bitter, the general counsel for the secretary of state’s office, wrote that an election clerk may effectively have to break state law in order to comply with a request for ballots so soon after an election.

Texas law says that if the ballots’ legal custodian, typically a local election official, “makes unauthorized entry into the secure container containing the voting ballots during the preservation period, or fails to prevent another person from making an unauthorized entry, the custodian has committed a Class A misdemeanor,” Bitter wrote.

Paxton’s opinion, experts say, does not appropriately address the potential criminal exposure.

Matthew Masterson, who previously served as the Trump administration’s top election security official and now is Microsoft’s director of information integrity, said that Paxton’s opinion will make it impossible for election administrators to appropriately ensure that ballots are kept secure. The security controls exist for a good reason, he said, and undermining them has serious implications.

“If you open up the floodgates and give anyone access to the ballots throughout that process, you have broken that chain of custody to the point where you would not be able to prove that this was the ballot a given voter cast,” Masterson said.

The opinion itself provides little guidance as to how long or for what reasons election administrators can block access to such ballots, leaving administrators across the state concerned about their ability to appropriately comply.

“If I read this literally as a layman, I think I’m required to provide ballots the day after an election before the results have even been canvassed,” said Chris Davis, elections director in Williamson County, who said such a release would make it impossible for counties to confidently conduct recounts that would stand up to legal scrutiny.

“I don’t know if the drafters of this opinion have a firm grasp on how ballot security and ballot processing is done at the county level,” he said.

There’s more, go read the whole thing, and add on this tweet thread from story author Jessica Huseman. There’s absolutely no justification for this – state and federal law are clear, and nothing has changed about them. It’s just chaos intended to give a boost to Big Lie enthusiasts, and as the story notes later on, it’s potentially a conflict of interest for Paxton since he himself is on the ballot this year, and everyone agrees it’s likely to be a close race.

County election officials around the state are already reporting getting a bunch of requests, some of which appear to be part of a coordinated effort. I think Harris County has the right response here.

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee says the county is not releasing the ballots, arguing the opinion Paxton issued in the name of election integrity last week runs afoul of the law.

“Attorney General Ken Paxton is distorting the law to fuel conspiracy theories, encouraging reckless behavior that erodes public trust in our democratic process,” Menefee said in a statement. “The law is clear that these voted ballots are confidential and it’s a crime for anyone to access them unless authorized by law.”

Menefee said Harris County had received more than three dozen requests to inspect ballots since Paxton issued his opinion. The county attorney’s office did not respond to a request for more information about the requests, including who submitted them.

[…]

Federal and state laws requires ballots be securely stored for 22 months after an election, in part to preserve them for recounts or challenges to election results. Menefee said Paxton’s opinion “directly contradicts” a separate opinion his office issued last month, as well as an opinion issued by the AG’s office more than 30 years ago, which both concluded that ballots are confidential for 22 months following an election.

“Our election workers should not have to fear being criminally prosecuted because the attorney general wants to play politics and try to rewrite laws,” Menefee said. “Everyone who has closely read the law agrees the ballots are confidential: the Secretary of State’s Office, counties across the state, and his own office just a month ago. Harris County will continue to follow Texas law, not the Attorney General’s ‘opinion.’”

That’s what I, a non-lawyer who has no responsibilities in these matters, would have done. It is highly likely that a lawsuit will result. No one wants that, but sometimes having the fight is the most straightforward way to resolve the dispute. If that’s what we have to do, then so be it.

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