WASHINGTON -- U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., introduced legislation Tuesday that would require post-election audits in all 50 states, predicting they would increase public confidence in the nation's electoral system.
But at least 38 states, including Arkansas, already mandate audits after federal elections, as do the five states most disputed by supporters of then-President Donald Trump following the 2020 elections -- Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, according to a 2019 study by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Known as the Verification and Oversight for Transparent Elections, Registration, and Identification, or VOTER ID, Act, Westerman's legislation mandates audits of the results of "each regularly scheduled general election for Federal office held in the State."
Westerman introduced his legislation after failing, on Monday, to persuade the House Rules Committee to include his provisions in HR1, the Democrats' nearly 800-page elections bill, which they have designated the For the People Act of 2021.
In addition to checking "the accuracy of the voting systems used to carry out the election," the Hot Springs lawmaker's bill would require states to assess whether their elections complied with "applicable laws, rules and procedures."
States would have to "attest" that they have "voter identification procedures and practices" in place as well as a system for keeping voter registration lists up to date.
The results would be posted online.
Westerman's legislation doesn't mandate, or even recommend, particular voter identification standards.
"Election laws are a function of the state. The states can develop that however they choose to develop it," Westerman said. "In Arkansas, it's a picture I.D."
The legislation also directs the Standards Board of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission to recommend "best practices" for the audits, but gives the states broad latitude in determining the processes they prefer to use.
The commission, an independent federal agency, was created in 2002 to help improve election administration; supporters pushed for its formation following the narrowly decided 2000 presidential election.
The Standards Board includes state and local election officials from around the country.
Trump, as a candidate, alleged that the 2016 presidential election was "rigged," but he claimed victory because he won the Electoral College even though he lost the popular vote.
After he lost both the popular vote and the Electoral College vote in the November 2020 general election to Joe Biden, Trump made claims of election fraud. His campaign made dozens of challenges to the election results in different states; the challenges were rejected by state election officials, federal and state courts, the Electoral College and a majority in Congress.
Westerman, who voted on Jan. 6 to recognize Biden's 306 electors, is not arguing that the Nov. 3 election was stolen.
"I think, based on the data that's come out from Republican legislatures and attorney generals and officials across the country, it's hard to say it wasn't free and fair," he said. "But I think we also realize that there were things done in this election that need to be changed."
With covid-19 spreading, executive branch officials were given "way too much authority" to make election-related decisions, Westerman said.
"The laws that were there, I believe were followed, but [I] also think those laws were stretched," he said.
In future elections, "I think you're going to see, across the country, where state legislatures start reining that power back in, as they should," he said.
Asked for comment, Democratic Party of Arkansas Chairman Michael John Gray portrayed the criticism as misplaced.
"Decisions, especially during the covid-19 pandemic, made by executive branches across this country, proved to be prudent," said Gray.
Auditing elections, on the other hand, might make sense, he said.
"I don't think anybody, Democrat or Republican, would disagree [with conducting] an audit of the election results. If the states can afford to do it, it's probably not a bad thing, just to check your work," Gray said. "But to wrest power from the executive branches, based on the results of an election, I don't think that's necessary."
Westerman said he opposes efforts, by either party, to federalize the country's voting system.
"I don't think Republicans need to do any form of a nationalized election bill, just like I don't think Democrats need to do one," he said. "Obviously, I think there's standards and best practices out there that the federal government can help with, but it needs to be a hands-off approach when it comes to making the actual laws and setting up the way elections are run in the states."
In 2019, the Arkansas General Assembly passed a law requiring the state Board of Election Commissioners to audit "the results of each general election to ensure the integrity and accuracy of the voting process."
Other states have taken similar steps over the past decade.
"Arkansas is very much part of the trend towards more post-election audits," said Wendy Underhill, director of the National Conference of State Legislatures' elections and redistricting team.
Post-election audits aren't a new phenomenon, however, she said.
"The traditional audit was usually done after certification at the election ... [so] we can improve our procedures for the next time," she said. "A lot of people now are thinking, 'Let's audit it immediately, so if there is a problem with this election, we could jump right on it before the certification.'"
Under Arkansas Code 7-4-121, the counties and polling sites to be audited are selected randomly. Enough "early voting locations, polling sites and vote centers" are selected "to obtain a meaningful sample."
The audited counties are selected "no less than" 60 days following the date of the general election."
The audit is conducted "by using the voter-verified paper audit trail."
Daniel Shults, the board's director, said the agency requested that the law "be enacted so that there would be a post-election audit process in Arkansas."
"Fundamentally, of course, there's a goal to detect a problem if there is one," Shults said. "But, moreover, the goal is to help build confidence in the election process."
The state board is scheduled to receive a draft audit report when it meets this afternoon in Little Rock.
"Our conclusion is that the equipment functioned correctly," Shults said.