The Texas Senate voted Wednesday to significantly beef up the state's election code, creating stiffer penalties for those who attempt to manipulate mail-in ballots.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott made stemming mail-in ballot issues a priority for the special legislative session after problems during the Dallas City Council election in May. As ballots were counted after the polls closed for the council races, a Dallas County judge sequestered more than 700 ballots, primarily in West Dallas District 6, a notorious hotbed for mail-in ballot chicanery. While most of those ballots counted in the final District 6 tally, a Dallas man has been arrested for illegally submitting at least one ballot.
The bill passed Wednesday — filed by Kelly Hancock, a Republican from North Richland Hills — wouldn't increase penalties for the crime of which Miguel Hernandez, the man charged in Dallas, is accused. A Dallas County grand jury indicted Hernandez for illegal voting, a second-degree felony punishable by two to 20 years in prison.
In order for a person to vote illegally, he or she must knowingly vote in election in which he or she is not allowed to vote, knowingly vote more than once in an election, impersonate another person at the ballot box or mark another person's ballot without consent. Hernandez is accused of filling out and submitting an otherwise blank ballot he coerced from a West Dallas senior citizen.
Hancock's bill, however, is an attempt to stop the far more common practice of mail-in vote harvesting, in which independent operators or campaign workers cajole seniors at every step of the voting process to cast a ballot for the operator's preferred candidate.
Hancock's legislation would make it a felony rather than a misdemeanor to provide false information on a mail-in ballot or to cause false information to be provided on a mail-in ballot. In West Dallas this spring, multiple residents complained that they received ballots they hadn't requested, according to Dallas County Elections Administrator Toni Pippins-Poole.
The bill passed over the objections of 10 Democrats, who argued that a section of the bill would make influencing "the independent exercise of the vote of another in the presence of the ballot or during the voting process" a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine.
Dallas Democrat Royce West — who initially said he supported the bill — worried passing that portion of the bill could criminalize family members or roommates talking about politics around the kitchen table while a mail-in ballot happened to be in the room.
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“There is the possibility that a family member looking over my shoulder saying you should vote for Sen. Van Taylor ... would be in violation of this section of the law,” West said. "I see this as a potential trap for senior citizens."
Hancock told West that his bill protects the sanctity of the ballot, even for those who can't make it to a polling place.
"In this particular section, once you have your ballot, you’re treated as any other citizen who has a ballot," he said. "When we’re dealing with the disabled, when we’re dealing with the elderly, I think they deserve the same privacy, the same protection of every other voter."
Hancock's bill is expected to head to the Texas House later this week.