A Texas Senate panel approved legislation Sunday afternoon aimed at cracking down on mail-in ballot fraud by imposing steep criminal penalties.
Proponents of the bill say Senate Bill 5, which was one of the 20 items the Gov. Greg Abbott included on his call for a special session, would curb an ongoing problem in Texas.
“The bill is long overdue,” Alan Vera with the Harris County Republican Party told lawmakers.
Vera told lawmakers people have been harvesting mail-in ballots and falsifying mail ballot signatures to throw elections for years, but he says not enough people have been prosecuted. Folks who are disabled or elderly often use mail-in ballots. So, they can be easy targets for fraud.
“We have had a hard time persuading county district attorneys to prosecute many violations of Texas Election Code because, today, so many of those violations are misdemeanors – somehow below the threshold of interest of a local D.A., whose calendars are backlogged with felony cases,” he explained.
Vera says penalties need to be steeper – and that’s exactly what Senate Bill 5 does.
It changes certain violations related to mail-in ballot fraud from a misdemeanor to a felony.
And while everyone who gave a testimony at the bill’s hearing agreed mail-in ballot fraud is a problem, voting rights advocates don’t agree steeper criminal penalties are the best way to solve the problem.
During the regular legislative session, which ended a few months ago, state lawmakers had already created some criminal penalties for this sort of thing.
“Perhaps the bill-drafters didn’t realize these penalty increases, including for mail-in ballot abuses, are already in play,” said Cinde Weatherby with the League of Women Voters of Texas.
She says that if SB 5 bill passes, too, it could compound those penalties, making the criminal charges even steeper.
The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Kelly Hancock, said he thinks those penalties won’t overlap.
However, Matt Simpson with the ACLU of Texas says lawmakers are considering some extreme punishments, which he says could affect people who simply made a mistake.
“There are situations that this bill could lead to in which someone could fail to sign and particularly fill out an official envelope and if that person was over 65, they could find themselves facing a third-degree felony – two to 10 years in a prison system,” Simpson explained.
Simpson says lawmakers should consider alternatives like civil or administrative penalties.
Weatherby warned lawmakers that possible felony convictions could keep some elderly and disabled folks from voting out of fear they might unintentionally break the law.
However, many proponents of the bill argued steep and serious consequences are the only way to dissuade people from committing mail-in ballot fraud in the future.