Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft is confident Missouri's 2020 election was safe and secure.
And while he has concerns about things that transpired in other states last year, he dismisses the idea fraud cost Donald Trump the presidential election.
"Under our Constitution, Joe Biden was duly elected by our presidential electors. End of story," Ashcroft said, later adding: "I have tried to be very consistent in saying that laws were not followed in different states, but I have not seen evidence that shows that the winners were changed by that."
At the same time, Ashcroft is on board with the push for Missouri lawmakers to create a new system for post-election audits — a cause that has become the rallying cry for conspiracy theorists peddling the lie of a stolen 2020 election.
Ashcroft doesn't buy into the conspiracies, but said he supports the push for audits because they could bolster voter confidence.
"When I say that I believe our election was run securely, I do," Ashcroft said. "But I have not gone back through and done a massive audit to prove that it was done well. And that's how you know."
He's not ready to roll out any specific ideas, he said, but is eager to work with state lawmakers when they return to Jefferson City in January.
Missouri's chief election official throwing his support behind the push for election audits is causing heartburn for some local officials and advocates around the state who fear it may feed into the drumbeat of baseless allegations about election fraud from Trump and his allies.
Boone County Clerk Brianna Lennon, a Democrat, said a lot of the recommendations from proponents of these audits are practices that local authorities already do after every election — either because of experience and expertise or because of laws that require them.
"The thing that gives me the most heartburn is the assumption that elections are not being checked and double checked before they reach certification," she said.
"The processes by which we certify the election, when we have a bipartisan team come in and they look over the results, count those precincts by hand, certify that and send it to the Secretary of State's office," Lennon said. "And the Secretary of State's office checks those results and they certify it. These are multiple levels of places where things can be checked."
Routine post-election audits are not problematic, said Liz Howard, senior counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.
But in the wake of Trump's defeat — and his refusal to concede — she said these audits have largely served to keep the "stolen election" lie alive.
And that has led to dire consequences for some election officials, Howard said.
"One of the concerning side effects is the uptick in death threats that election officials who are involved in these face," Howard said. "Myths and disinformation campaigns have led to an uptick in threats of violence against election officials."
Ashcroft said he knows any push for an audit will be criticized. But that's not a reason to ditch the idea, he said.
"The wings of the parties will call it a partisan thing, regardless of what you do," he said. "Are we gonna listen to the partisans that are paid to say stupid stuff and throw bombs or are we going to listen to the people of the state?"
There is a certain fringe in both parties "that it really doesn't pay to talk to," Ashcroft said, "because they are not listening."
The most notable post- election review following the 2020 election was in Arizona, where the Republican-led state Senate targeted Maricopa County, the state's most populous county that Biden narrowly carried en route to winning the state.
Democratic and Republican critics alike — including the GOP-run county board of supervisors and the Republican who is the chief county election officer — dismissed the effort.
They argued the audit was a dangerous exploitation of the same grievances that fueled Trump supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 determined to stop the certification of Biden's electoral college victory.
The Arizona audit — which ultimately failed to show Trump was cheated of victory — included inspecting ballots for traces of bamboo to determine if they were imported from Asia and scanning them with UV lights to look for secret watermarks.
It was conducted by a firm called CyberNinjas, which was largely funded by a Trump supporter who falsely claimed the 2020 election was "rigged."
The lack of evidence of fraud in Arizona wasn't enough to dissuade former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, who has made the stolen election lie a major theme of his bid for the U.S. Senate next year.
He has called for Arizona- style audits around the country, including in Missouri, where Trump won in 2020 by 15 percentage points.
"What we've seen in other states where the legislature has, on a partisan basis, launched these efforts, is that they aren't really audits," Howard said. "They're sham reviews conducted by people that don't have election experience and by people who have a bias and really end up costing taxpayers tons of money."
Ashcroft insists a framework can be built that allows for post-election audits that bolster confidence in the electoral process.
"You can do an audit in a bad way. I agree with that," Ashcroft said. "You can set up an audit where it's designed to show you a certain outcome. And if that is how you do audits, that's inappropriate."
He hopes to work with lawmakers and local election officials next year to set up a process "to say, this is what happened, this was good, this was bad. We had a good chain of custody here but we didn't here. If you do an audit that's really just designed to say, 'OK, let's explore what happened,' then I don't see how that is problematic."
At a meeting this summer of the National Association of Secretaries of State, secretaries from around the country voted nearly unanimously to approve a series of recommendations for post-election audits, including laying out strict guidelines and procedures for how audits will be triggered and conducted.
Only two secretaries of state didn't support the measure: West Virginia's Mac Warner, a Republican, voted against it, while Ashcroft abstained.
Ashcroft's issue with the recommendations was both procedural and substantive. He said the association didn't follow its own rules in drafting the proposed framework. But more importantly, he said the suggestions were designed to undercut post-election audits.
"One of the top line things was that you had to determine the parameters of the audit before the election," Ashcroft said of the group's proposal. "So if something screwy happens in the election, you can't say, 'Oh, we need to look into that.'
"To me," he said, "That's ridiculous."
With the former president dedicating his post-presidency to stoking allegations of a stolen election, calls for every state to conduct audits continue to grow louder from his supporters.
But Ashcroft said he isn't in any rush to put a framework in place.
"I understand that there are a lot of people concerned about audits and calling for an audit right now," he said. "I would much rather wait and have a good plan that a lot of people looked at and poked holes in and tried to figure out how to do this right."
The ultimate goal, Ashcroft insists, is to make sure Missourians have confidence in the process.
"It's about good government," he said. "It's about responsive government that does its job well and in a way that the people can trust."
Lennon, Boone County's clerk, said the electoral system is already secure, and processes are already in place to ensure confidence among voters.
"Our election system is built with fail safes in it so that if anything goes wrong, we can find it and we can correct it and we can account for it," Lennon said. "In the worst cases, or in the cases of an election contest, we can do it over again if something really terrible were to have happened."
The Missouri Independent is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering state government and its impact on Missourians.