After more than three hours of debate Wednesday, the Texas House voted 90-37 to tentatively approve a Senate bill that would increase penalties for mail-in ballot fraud. The House is scheduled to take a final vote on the measure Thursday.
Senate Bill 5, by Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, would require a signature verification process for early ballots, notification of rejected ones within a month after an election and a process for correcting errors. Punishment for committing mail-in voter fraud in some cases could carry a penalty of up to 10 years in prison. Hancock and bill supporters have said the bill would protect the most vulnerable voters: seniors and people with disabilities.
But some House Democrats said SB 5 focuses more on penalties than solutions to fraud, and that a special session isn’t enough time to draft sound legislation. Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, called SB 5 “sloppy” and argued for a more robust conversation before moving forward on voter fraud legislation.
“The system needs to be reformed to make the commission of the crime impossible or more difficult to commit in the first place, not enhancing the penalty,” Johnson said.
Johnson offered an amendment that would have essentially killed SB 5. The chamber voted it down, a fate shared by all but one amendment offered by Democrats.
The House approved changes to the bill that would prohibit electronic signatures on mail-in ballot applications and repeal House Bill 658 — passed during the regular session earlier this year — which gives voting priority to people with mobility issues and makes it easier for people in residential care facilities to vote by bringing ballots and an election official to their location — if at least five voters living there request a ballot. Gov. Greg Abbott signed the bill into law in June, setting it to take effect on Sept. 1.
Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, who is carrying SB 5 in the House, said HB 658 is an unfunded mandate to nursing homes and similar facilities and that it would be difficult for some counties to make the accommodations for seniors and people with disabilities.
Under SB 5, a person could face jail time if they try to influence a vote “in the presence of the ballot or during the voting process,” a part of the bill that has drawn the most criticism from Democrats and other opponents of the bill. They argue that specific language could land people in legal jeopardy if they discuss a candidate’s qualifications to a loved one while the ballot is present. Goldman said the premise is “unrealistic,” and that the bill targets people harvesting mail-in ballots and who “knowingly and willingly” committing fraud.
“I don’t think any other family member is going to turn in their aunt or their uncle, their dad, their mother or their brother for committing fraud, if they’re sitting around the kitchen table and a ballot happens to be there, and they talk about how their going to vote,” Goldman said.
Reducing mail-in ballot fraud is one of Abbott’s 20 special session items. As lawmakers look for a solution, Dallas County is prosecuting a mail-ballot fraud case in which 700 ballots were marked as suspicious.