The first bill to toughen penalties for mail-in ballot voter fraud in over a decade sits in House committee after clearing the Senate with a 21-10 vote.
The bill — Senate Bill 5 — is a lengthy treatise aimed at making it harder for vote harvesters to operate and to increase penalties for interfering with mail-in votes.
Vote harvesters are well known in many communities as individuals who appropriate mail-in ballots or hijack the ballots to direct a vote for a particular candidate.
The last successful effort at the Capitol to crack down on mail-in voter fraud was in 2003 when former state Rep. Steve Wolens (D-Dallas) shepherded a bill through the legislature that created penalties for assisting elderly and infirm voters who could not make it to the polls.
At the time Wolens said that his measure was to “provide a definition for assistance in voting, to make it clear what that assistance is, and to provide penalties for violation of the law.”
In the years since the passage of that measure, mail-in ballot voter fraud has continued.
Some fear that the newly proposed rules making penalties harsher for violating state law regarding the mail-in ballot process will not have much of an effect, as most of those prosecuted are minor players doing the bidding of candidates.
And the few who are prosecuted often simply plead down and take a probated sentence.
To get the new measure through, advocates are couching it as a means to ensure elderly voters are not taken advantage of.
“So much election fraud in Texas is at the expense of the elderly…” Alan Vera of the Harris County Republican Party said as he testified in support of the bill at a Senate hearing. “This bill addresses that real problem.”
His view was countered by opposition testimony from Cinde Weatherby, representing the League of Women Voters of Texas.
“We believe that SB5 would result in the elderly and those with disabilities in particular fearing…that they might do something wrong that could result in imprisonment or choose not to vote at all,” Weatherby said.
A dozen witnesses recently testified for and against the House version of the bill, HB 184, in front of the Elections Committee.
Much of the argument focused on how much impact that proposed increase in penalties would have on the pursuit and prosecution of vote harvesting.
Glen Maxey, speaking for the Texas Democratic Party, noted that even if some of the activity went from misdemeanor to felony status, violent crimes would still be a priority.
Erin Swanson, director of compliance with the Harris County Clerk’s office, assured the committee that the increased penalties would improve the chances of a harder line on vote harvesters.
“There are so many cases, having the strength of a felony, even though a lot of these get plea bargained down…does help,” Swanson said.
The proposed new rules still keep the heat off larger players and are focused largely on the small timers who are pursued by state and local prosecutors.
But a measure passed during the regular session opens the door to prosecutions of a larger scale, rolling some of the same provisions that are included in federal organized crime statutes.
Senate Bill 1666, an omnibus voting procedure measure, sets up a manner of taking down bigger interests. It includes adding an organized crime element to a voter fraud charge.
“Whatever the crime is related to voter fraud, they are usually attached to the people on the ground,” said Aaron Harris, executive director of the Direct Action, a conservative political operation that has probed voting irregularities in Tarrant and Dallas counties over the past year. “That now moves up to the organizer.”
The measure, which has not been signed into law, plays into a flow chart assembled by Harris and provided to the state Attorney General’s office regarding alleged mail-in ballot fraud in the two north Texas counties.
The AG’s office acknowledges it is conducting an investigation based on Harris’ work, which alleges the law firm of Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson leads a ring of operatives that manipulate the mail-in process.
The role of Linebarger lawyer Mario Perez, who was fired from the firm in 2012 after he was indicted for tampering with campaign finance reports for an Arlington school board candidate, is also being examined, as is former state Rep. Domingo Garcia and several elected officials in Tarrant County.
Perez — who was hired back by Linebarger after his indictment was dropped — and the other named officials have denied any wrongdoing, as does Linebarger.
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].