The Senate State Affairs Committee unanimously approved a bill Sunday that would set up safeguards to prevent mail-in ballot fraud in Texas and increase penalties for people who try to steal others’ votes.
Senate Bill 5 by Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, would require a signature verification process for early ballots, notification of rejected ones and a process for correcting errors. Punishment for committing mail-in voter fraud could reach $4,000 and up to a year in jail. Hancock said his bill would protect the most vulnerable voters: seniors and people with disabilities.
Most of those testifying Sunday endorsed the bill, including Republican Nueces County Clerk Kara Sands, who told the American-Statesman that her office has found numerous signatures in mail-in ballot applications that don’t match voters’ actual ballot signatures. She’s also heard from voters who say they were offered voting assistance but pushed to vote a certain way.
“They’re intimidating the voters, ” she said. “And they are disenfranchising them and stealing their vote.”
Detractors of the bill said some proposed penalties are too harsh. Under the bill, a person could face up to 10 years in prison if found to be in possession of an official ballot or official carrier envelope belonging to another voter.
Exceptions include if the person found holding an official ballot that isn’t theirs either lives with the voter, is related to them “within the second degree by affinity or the third degree by consanguinity” or legally authorized to handle those materials. And to legally assist someone voting by mail, the assistant would have to place his or her name, signature and address on the envelope carrying the ballot before sending it, and sign an oath swearing that they will not try to influence the voter’s vote.
SB 5 could scare off civic-minded individuals afraid of facing a felony on their record, said Yannis Banks, legislative liaison for the Texas NAACP. There are people who are not related to a voter but have a close relationship help the voter through the process of voting by mail, Banks said. It would be a shame if people stopped engaging voters because of SB 5, he added.
Gov. Greg Abbott made tackling mail-in ballot fraud one of his 20 special session items. As lawmakers eye reforms, Dallas County is prosecuting a mail-ballot fraud case in which 700 ballots were marked as suspicious.