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Missouri Secretary of State accused of illegally withholding election information in new audit

Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft speaks in favor of bills that would, in part, ban the teaching of “critical race theory” in schools on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023, during an Education and Workforce Development Committee hearing at the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft speaks in favor of bills that would, in part, ban the teaching of “critical race theory” in schools on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023, during an Education and Workforce Development Committee hearing at the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City.

State Auditor Scott Fitzpatrick, a Republican, issued an audit of Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft's office and downgraded his administration to the second-lowest rating because it illegally withheld documentation about election cybersecurity. Ashcroft, who is also a Republican, criticized the report as a political attack.

An audit accusing his office of illegally withholding information and failing to document withdrawal from a national elections clearinghouse is a “deep state” political attack, Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft told reporters Tuesday.

On Monday, State Auditor Scott Fitzpatrick issued an audit of Ashcroft’s office and gave his administration a “fair” rating, the second-lowest rating and a downgrade from a previous audit. The reasons, Fitzpatrick said, were that Ashcroft illegally withheld documentation of cybersecurity checks for local election authorities.

“The law clearly provides our audit staff with the authority to receive and review this information, and it’s disappointing the Secretary of State’s Office stood in the way of our efforts to perform a thorough analysis of how the new cyber security reviews have been implemented,” Fitzpatrick said in a news release. “Going forward I hope the office, and all governmental entities, will follow the law and respect the duty we have to provide taxpayers with a better understanding of how government is operating and that their tax dollars are being used efficiently.”

The audit also said Ashcroft “refused” to provide reports from the elections clearinghouse known as the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, which checks voter registration in several states.

At a news conference, Ashcroft accused Fitzpatrick of stepping outside his authority in seeking the cybersecurity information. Instead, Ashcroft said, Fitzpatrick is chasing headlines.

“These are political opinions under the guise of an audit report that are being put forth by an agency that doesn’t even understand the issues that they’re talking about,” Ashcroft said.

Both Ashcroft and Fitzpatrick are Republicans.

The audit comes as Ashcroft is trying to use his eight-year tenure in the secretary of state’s office as a springboard to the governorship. He is opposed in the GOP primary by Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe of Jefferson City and state Sen. Bill Eigel of Weldon Spring.

In addition to questioning Fitzpatrick’s motives for the audit’s statements, Ashcroft also suggested he doesn’t have control of his staff.

“It’s understandable why the people of this country and the people of Missouri can think that’s just the deep state when things like this happen,” Ashcroft said.

Asked to clarify what he meant, Ashcroft added: “I don’t know how much the state auditor actually had to do with this. This audit, reasonably, we could expect that this was done by bureaucrats in his office.”

A spokesman for the auditor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Ashcroft’s accusations.

In the audit, Fitzpatrick pointed to a 2022 elections bill as the source of the requirement for a cyber security review by the secretary of state’s office or a firm specializing in cyber security reviews once every 2 years.

“Because the (secretary of state) refused to cooperate, audit staff were unable to obtain sufficient evidence to evaluate the steps taken by the (secretary of state) to comply with the new state law,” Fitzpatrick’s release about the audit stated.

Ashcroft, however, said his office signed non-disclosure agreements with local election authorities and could not legally release the information.

“We were quite happy to go before the courts, to go before a judge, which is what you’re supposed to do when you have a disagreement about the law,” Ashcroft said. “Their office did not want to do that.”

In addition, Ashcroft noted that the law did not take effect until after the period covered by the audit, the two fiscal years ending June 30, 2022.

In the section of the audit about ERIC, Fitzpatrick said Aschcroft’s office failed to evaluate the benefits of membership in the organization that helps identify duplicate registrations and deceased voters.

“The data shows during the five years the state was a member of ERIC, the (secretary of state) and local election authorities (LEAs) were provided information on over 770,000 potentially duplicate voter registration records and over 21,000 deceased voter registration records,” the audit news release stated. “Election administrators in Missouri’s largest election jurisdiction, St. Louis County, used ERIC reports to remove thousands of deceased voters from their voter rolls alone.”

Ashcroft, however, argued that the benefits of ERIC were outweighed by its partisan board and tilt. It wasn’t efficient for Missouri, he said, in part because only three of the eight neighboring states were members.

“It just wasn’t providing what it should,” Ashcroft said. “Frankly, it was a somewhat partisan organization. It’s not right to use taxpayer dollars for partisan purposes.”

Ashcroft said Fitzpatrick is making judgments about how the secretary of state’s office should operate without full knowledge.

“This isn’t about money disappearing,” Ashcroft said. “This isn’t about the books not adding up. This is a political judgment by the state auditor about something that he really doesn’t have expertise on about how Missouri should run its elections.”

This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent, part of the States Newsroom.

Rudi Keller covers the state budget, energy and the legislature for the Missouri Independent.
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