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Missouri secretary of state pushes back at a state audit claiming a violation of state law

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft on Tuesday went on the defensive after the state auditor claimed Ashcroft violated state law by failing to turn over cybersecurity reviews of local election offices.

The audit, released Monday, also was critical of Ashcroft’s abrupt departure from the bipartisan Electronic Registration Information Center, a national system designed to help states maintain accurate voter rolls that has been targeted by conspiracy theories.

Ashcroft, at a news conference, criticized what he called “false accusations" in Auditor Scott Fitzpatrick's audit of his office.

“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," said Ashcroft, a Republican who is running for governor.

The audit from Fitzpatrick, a Republican who is not a candidate for another statewide office, gave a “fair” rating to the secretary of state's office — the second-lowest possible rating.

Fitzpatrick on Tuesday told reporters that there is “no political benefit” to a fight with Ashcroft’s office.

“Auditees often are not happy with the results of the audits, and that is the case here,” Fitzpatrick said. “If you don’t like the findings, the reality is that it was done according to standards.”

At issue is a sweeping election law passed in 2022 that included a requirement that the secretary of state’s office and local election authorities undergo a cybersecurity review every two years.

The audit said Ashcroft’s office failed to share details of those inspections to verify that the reviews were actually happening at Missouri's 116 local election authorities.

Fitzpatrick said his office was able to use the state's accounting software to verify at least some cybersecurity reviews had been purchased, so the office decided against using limited legal resources to force Ashcroft to provide documentation.

The audit did not call for legal action against Ashcroft.

Ashcroft said the reviews included confidential information that his office was not allowed to release. Besides, he said, the new law wasn’t in effect during the period covered by the audit.

Also at issue is Ashcroft's decision to drop out of the Electronic Registration Information Center, known as ERIC. The system has a record of combating voter fraud by identifying those who have died or moved between states. Yet it also has drawn suspicion among some Republican state leaders after a series of online stories surfaced questioning the center’s funding and purpose.

Former President Donald Trump had urged state election officials to move away from ERIC, claiming on social media that it “pumps the rolls” for Democrats. Ashcroft opted to leave the ERIC system last year.

“I can respect why Secretary Ashcroft felt it was necessary to end the relationship with ERIC, but that doesn’t negate the responsibility to have a plan to replace that data so the office has a reliable way to ensure we don’t have dead voters registered in Missouri as we enter a major election year," Fitzpatrick said in a statement announcing the audit.

Ashcroft said he spent a year trying to help reform the ERIC system before opting out. Even without being part of ERIC, Ashcroft said Missouri has a strong reputation for honest elections under his watch.

“Other states are looking at what Missouri has done and following our lead," he said.

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Salter reported from O'Fallon, Missouri.