The first law to amend Texas voter fraud penalties in 14 years takes effect in December, creating enhanced penalties for illegally casting the mail-in ballot of another individual.
The law was passed 92-39 in the House and 21-10 in the Senate, both along mostly party lines as the state legislature’s special session came to a close.
Proponents of Senate Bill 5 insisted the measure was to protect elderly voters, who are the primary users of the mail-in ballot.
Foes of the bill feared “unintended consequences” that would criminalize assisting a family member for putting their ballot in the mail.
“I think that family members and caretakers will be prone to penalties for helping their loved ones vote,” state Sen. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio) said in discussion during the final vote.
The author of the bill, Sen. Kelly Hancock (R-North Richland Hills), insisted that the basic protections for family members will remain.
The law amends 10 provisions of the state’s election code. It increases penalties for behavior that is already illegal, including elements of voter assistance and the collection of ballots, moving some offenses that are now misdemeanors up to felonies.
It also makes more explicit existing law regarding the assistance that an individual may give another in casting a vote, which could make it easier for the state to obtain convictions in voter fraud prosecutions.
The law particularly targets so-called “vote harvesters,” who are paid to collect votes for a candidate. Harvesters prey on mostly elderly voters, and in some cases, apply for mail-in ballots on behalf of unknowing voters, intercepting those ballots and casting the ballot for their benefactor.
The last legislation to address mail-in ballot fraud was approved in 2003 and authored by former state Rep. Steve Wolens, a Dallas Democrat. Like the new measure, the law set out penalties for appropriating ballots and otherwise abusing the mail-in voter process.
Since that time, the state has prosecuted dozens of individuals for voter fraud, mostly in South Texas. Most cases end in plea bargains. Seven people have been sent to prison for voting violations, and most of them also had other more serious crimes or had criminal records.
Penalty enhancements have had little effect on voter fraud, said Randall “Buck” Wood, a veteran election law attorney and former director of the Elections Division of the Texas Office of the Secretary of State.
“They have had no impact,” Wood told The Texas Monitor last month.
Putting some additional teeth into laws regarding voter fraud was one of Gov. Greg Abbott’s main objectives as the session began. He handed the issue off to Hancock in part because the state is engaged in an investigation of fraud in Tarrant County — Hancock’s home base — which Abbott characterizes as the “the largest voter fraud investigation in Texas history.”
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].