The state Senate passed legislation Monday that increases criminal penalties for election-related crimes in Texas. Voting rights groups have said they worry the bill could criminalize honest mistakes, among other things.
Supporters say the sweeping election bill is aimed at cracking down on voter fraud. It is on Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s list of priority legislation the session.
Among other things, Senate Bill 9 increases criminal penalties for anyone who provides false information on a voter registration form. Currently, providing false information on an application is a Class B misdemeanor. Under the bill, it would become a "state jail felony.”
The legislation also increases criminal penalties for casting a ballot – including a provisional ballot – if you aren't eligible to vote. Provisional ballots were created under federal law to allow people to vote if they aren't sure they can; the votes are counted only if election officials can prove a voter is eligible. Groups say the bill could undermine these protections.
SB 9 also requires paper ballot backups for electronic voting machines in Texas.
State Sen. Jose Rodriguez of El Paso was among several Democrats to introduce amendments on the bill. He said his biggest concern was that the legislation did not make it clear that the penalties should apply only if someone “intentionally” committed fraud.
“It seems that if we are going to be making people felons, then at least we got to make sure that they are intentionally committing the fraud and not simply checking the wrong box,” he said during debate Monday.
The bill’s sponsor – state Sen. Bryan Hughes – said the legislation was not intended to ensnare people who make honest mistakes.
“There are no changes in this bill that would create a pitfall or a trap for the unwary or a ‘gotcha’ in elections,” he said. “The changes in this bill are to catch and punish cheaters.”
The bill still needs to pass the Texas House before it makes its way to the governor’s desk for approval.