AUSTIN — Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to reallocate $4 million in Texas Department of Criminal Justice funding to combat election fraud left a budget hole in a department already struggling to fill positions.
On Nov. 19, Abbott announced he approved a legislative budget proposal that would provide funding needed for the Texas Secretary of State’s office to establish a new Election Audit Division — a division conducting comprehensive forensic audits of the state’s election. This is addition to the $250 million Abbott took from the TDCJ in June to fund the border wall.
The money for the audit was taken from the General Revenue appropriated for Correctional Security Operations in fiscal year 2023 “for the purpose of ensuring election integrity,” documents state.
“Ensuring the integrity of our elections is critical to our democracy, and the Texas Secretary of State’s office deserves the resources and support needed to thoroughly complete this ongoing task,” Abbott said in a news release. “The people of Texas must have trust and confidence in the election process, as well as the outcomes of our elections.”
Based in Huntsville, the TDCJ manages and operates all state prisons, state jails and contracted private correctional facilities, according to its website.
As of Dec. 17, the TDCJ had 375 job openings. Of those, at least 60 were for correctional officer positions with an average pay of about $49,000 per year. In total, the TDCJ has about 29,300 employees.
“Recruiting and retaining correctional officers remains the agency’s biggest challenge and our highest priority,” said Robert Hurst, TDCJ communications officer. “Before COVID-19, staffing was frequently impacted by economic surges and competing employment opportunities. The pandemic has exacerbated these issues.”
The jobs themselves are inherently difficult and often underappreciated as reflected in their low pay, said Charley Wilkison, executive director of Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, or CLEAT. The starting salary for a TDCJ correctional officer is $36,200 per year.
CLEAT primarily works with jailers at the county level, but Wilkison said issues with staffing are seen across all state and local detention and jail systems.
Wilkison said the issues with understaffing create greater burdens on corrections officers as they are expected to watch over more inmates with fewer resources. Low staffing could also put their safety, and the safety of people incarcerated, at risk should an incident occur and help is not readily available.
“These people are the bravest, most honorable folk that you find,” Wilkison said. “[Correctional officers] take dangerous individuals who can harm the whole community and keep them off the streets and away from society.”
He added: “We don’t place a value on these people, their sacrifice or honors. They are no less than any of the rest of the folks that do things to protect the community.”
Hurst said the agency is working to improve salaries and work conditions in order to increase recruiting.
This includes a recent restructuring of its correctional officer career ladder where officers can now receive pay increases earlier in their rise and more frequently as they progress, Hurst said. But to fund the changes, the agency discontinued the recruitment bonus for correctional officers, he added.
The 87th Legislature also approved a 3% pay increase for correctional officers, food service and laundry managers, and ranking correction officers at 23 maximum-security facilities. This is where the TDCJ sees the highest turnover, Hurst said.
The agency has also closed or idled six facilities within the past year in order to ease staffing burdens, Hurst said.
“We understand that there is no one solution to staffing but we will continue to find new and creative ways to fill critical positions,” he said.
Hurst said the TDCJ is likely to recoup the redirected funding through supplemental appropriation before it is needed, but when that will happen is unclear.
On Dec. 10, the Texas Secretary of State office launched phase two of its election audit targeting Tarrant, Collin, Dallas and Harris counties in which all except Collin County voted in favor of President Joe Biden.
Republican leaders continue to insist that widespread voter fraud occurs the state even though the number of voter fraud cases is less than 0.001%, according to reports.
In the 2020 election, 11 million Texans voted. The Texas Attorney General’s Office received 24 complaints where only a handful were prosecuted.
Nonetheless, Texas Secretary of State John Scott said the audit will “restore faith in Texas elections.”
“For the past several election cycles, voters have faced a crisis of confidence in the very system that underpins our representative form of government,” Scott said previously.
The state has already conducted partial manual recounts, election security assessments and voter eligibility verification, but Scott insisted there is a need to go further.
The office issued an exhaustive document request of publicly available election materials which it said will cover about 35% of all votes cast in the November 2020 General Election in Texas.
“Texas is leading in election integrity. As we embark on Phase 2 of our agency’s Full Forensic Audit of the 2020 Election, we want to ensure every single eligible Texas voter knows that ballots in Texas are being properly processed, tabulated, and reported by county election officials in accordance with state and federal law,” Scott said in a news release.
Texas is not the only state to have funded election integrity initiatives. Wisconsin taxpayers have funded $700,000 worth of initiatives and Arizona taxpayers are funding a continued investigation into the 2020 election.
Even so, Kevin Boyle ,a professor of American History at Northwestern University, said an audit — even if it proves the previously established results to be accurate and Biden is the rightful president — will not strengthen beliefs in a system GOP elected officials are determined to tear down.
Boyle said he believes unless Republican leaders stand up to what is the fundamental truth, that the election was not stolen and there is no widespread voter fraud, Texans will continue to see a push by GOP leaders for more election restrictions.
“They understand this election wasn’t stolen, but they’re not saying that they are not standing up to that fundamental lie. That’s what needs to happen in the United States,” Boyle said. “Republican leadership sees a political advantage in pushing this lie, and by doing that, they are threatening the democratic system.”
He added: “We need people and there are people in the [Republican] party … to say the nation matters more than your political advantage.”