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.)
But no matter how diligent his efforts to ensure what the GOP calls “election integrity,” Scott can’t seem to satisfy those who believe Trump’s claims of a stolen election. At a routine voting-machine demonstration in Hays County in September, Scott was ambushed by around a dozen “stop the steal” activists, who peppered him with arcane questions about voting-machine security. “We’re following state law,” Scott assured the crowd. “No you’re not!” they shouted back.
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: What is the most common misperception you hear about elections?
JS: That our voting machines are connected to the internet. It’s completely false. There are zero machines in this state that are connected to the internet. They’re not connected to anything. They stand alone, and that air gap is what gives them the protection that we depend upon.
TM: Attorney General Ken Paxton has been laser-focused on rooting out voter fraud. But he’s only charged 44 people with election-related crimes over his seven years in office. Is voter fraud a major problem in Texas?
JS: I don’t want to step out of my lane. The Secretary of State’s office is not a law enforcement agency. We’re not tasked with prosecuting anyone. If we find something suspicious that may rise to that level, we immediately pass it off to the local district attorney or the attorney general’s office. In the wake of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals opinion [stating that Paxton needs permission from local DAs to pursue election cases], our working model is to make sure we always refer it to the local DA. I know there have been a lot of different situations involving voting that have ended up in prosecutions. The system seems to always take care of itself.
TM: You have said that the results of the second and final phase of your forensic election audit will be released to the public by the end of this year. Is there anything in the results that casts doubt on the legitimacy of the 2020 general election in those four counties?
JS: We don’t want to have any narrative attached to this at all. We’re just going to walk people through the process from the beginning of the election to the end. We’re going to show the results of our investigation. And people can make of it what they will.
TM: During the spring primary, 12 percent of mail-in ballots were rejected—most for failing to follow the new rules established by Senate Bill 1. In previous elections, the rejection rate was around 1 or 2 percent. Why was there such a high number of rejected ballots this year?
JS: I don’t know, other than that it was a brand-new system. Sometimes that has the unintended consequence of making it more difficult [to successfully cast a ballot]. In the primary runoff election, the rejection rate dropped to about 4 percent—and [less than] 1 percent in Bexar County. What happened is that Bexar County included an insert with the ballot [explaining how to fill it out]. That’s something most counties this time are going to do. That’s really a best practice, and that’s something we encourage.
TM: One of SB 1’s requirements is that voters write down either their driver’s license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number—whichever one they used when they registered to vote. Many people forgot which number they used, so their ballot was rejected. Are you now encouraging voters to write down both numbers?
JS: I told my mom to write both numbers down. She’s eighty-nine. I told her, “If either one of them matches [your voter registration application], you’re golden.” I think this is a concern of everybody who votes by mail. A lot of them are in a fragile state of their lives, but they truly love participating in the election process. We want to make sure they still have the ability to vote. So I would give everybody the same advice I gave my mom.
TM: Given the confusion around the new vote-by-mail requirements, would you encourage the Legislature to clarify the rules during the next session?
JS: If there are any improvements [to be made], we will definitely relay that to the legislative leadership and the governor’s office. And if we hear about better ways to do stuff, we will absolutely continue to relay that.
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.
TM: Last year, your office compiled a list of nearly 12,000 potential noncitizens who were registered to vote in Texas. A group of voting rights organizations sued your office to obtain that list. Why won’t your office release it?
JS: We don’t want individuals to be targeted because they are on the list. There may be people out there who want to go knock on those people’s doors. Compiling the list is just the first step. If someone is an eligible voter, they’re taken off the list and the records are corrected. What we don’t want to do is open someone up to unnecessary harassment.
TM: In order to remain on the voting rolls, people on the list have to respond to a letter asking them to prove their citizenship. But I would be worried that I might miss the letter, or that it might have gone to my previous address. Through no fault of my own, I would then be automatically removed from the voting rolls. That’s a little concerning.
JS: If that happened, you could still vote in the election. You would have to fill out a form, and then you could go ahead and vote. Voters can always show proof of citizenship and get reinstated immediately. But again, these are people who registered to vote and subsequently self-identified as a noncitizen while applying for their driver’s license. Could they have mistakenly self-identified as a noncitizen? I absolutely believe that’s possible. But that’s why counties need to give voters the opportunity to make sure their information is correct.
TM: I read on social media that you attended a meeting of the Dallas Jewish Conservatives at which you praised 2000 Mules (the widely debunked documentary by right-wing provocateur Dinesh D’Souza that claims Democrats used ballot drop boxes to steal the 2020 presidential election). Is that correct?
JS: I did speak to the group. The question was whether I’d seen 2000 Mules. I said, “The film would outrage anyone, but in Texas we don’t have drop boxes. [By law, ballots can only be dropped off at the local election administrator’s office.] In Texas, vote harvesting is illegal. So don’t worry about that.” There may have been some people in the audience who jeered at me for that.
TM: The documentary asserts that there was massive, nationwide voter fraud that stole the election from Trump. Do you endorse that conclusion?
JS: My point is that none of that stuff took place in Texas. 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.
TM: Do you believe Joe Biden was legitimately elected president?
JS: Absolutely. I’ve never hesitated on that answer. Joe Biden’s been the president, he is the president, and will be the president for two more years. If he wins the next election, he’ll be president for the next four years.
TM: Do you feel like you’re caught in the middle, attacked by the right and the left? It seems like you’re trying to be the reasonable guy in the room.
JS: I think the role of the Secretary of State is to be the voice of reason. I am trying to bring calm to the situation. I don’t know how you do that other than putting yourself in the middle. I do get rocks from both sides. I wish I could say it was one side more than the other. But it’s a small portion of both sides that are throwing the rocks. And that’s the comforting thing.