Bill Tackling Mail-in Ballot Fraud Headed to Governor's Desk

AUSTIN -- A bill that would increase penalties for people who commit election crimes related to mail-in ballots is headed to Gov. Greg Abbott's desk.The Senate on Friday agreed to changes made to the legislation by the House earlier in the week. The biggest change was an amendment added by the bill's House sponsor, Craig Goldman of Fort Worth, that nixed a change to election law that was approved by both chambers during the regular session and signed into law by Abbott.That law was a bipartisan attempt to curb voter fraud at nursing homes. It would have created a process for collecting absentee ballots at nursing homes and similar facilities, essentially turning them into polling places and discouraging others from manipulating their votes.But after it was signed into law, the Republican authors of the mail-in ballot fraud bill said they began hearing from county clerks who said it would be extremely costly and create an "unfunded mandate."Sen. Joan Huffman, a Houston Republican who pushed the nursing home election law in the Senate, said those concerns were based on "misinformation regarding the requirements of the bill." She said she was upset the bipartisan effort was not going to be law anymore."It was a prime example of legislation that practically would have worked to eliminate mail-in ballot fraud," she said. "We just want to stop this. We want honest voting without fraud and we want everyone to just vote one time and out of their own accord."Still, Huffman was one of 21 senators -- including Democrat Eddie Lucio of Brownsville -- to send Senate Bill 5 to the governor's desk. All Democrats except Lucio voted against it."I won't let perfect be the enemy of good," Huffman said. "I'll be back next session and hopefully we can address the issue again."Supporters of the bill said increasing penalties for mail-in ballot from "slaps on the wrist" would deter people thinking of engaging in election crime. "The whole point of the bill was to try to prevent mail-in ballot fraud from happening at all and it's unfortunate that people are taking advantage of the system," Goldman said earlier in the week. "Our goal is to increase the penalties on those who commit such fraud in hopes to deter them from performing those actions forever more."Democrats staunchly opposed the bill arguing that it focused solely on enhancing penalties for criminals and did nothing to tackle the heart of the problem: a mail-in ballot application system that was too easy to cheat.Mail-in ballot fraud garnered no attention during the regular session, despite Republican state leaders pushing for and approving a "must-pass" revamp of Texas' controversial voter identification law -- which is still pending a challenge in federal district court.Although experts say mail-in ballot fraud is the main way voting fraud occurs, the issue gained no traction from "tough on voter fraud" state leadership until a series of allegations about it arose in West Dallas and Grand Prairie this spring. Abbott tacked it on as one of the 20 items on his special session agenda. Under the law, penalties for election crimes would be increased to the next-highest offense level. Misdemeanors will become felonies, and low-level felonies would get an upgrade.The fines associated with the crimes also would increase. Fraudulent use of a ballot, for instance, would rise from a state jail felony to a third-degree felony, punishable by two to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.The law is aimed at cracking down on those who target people over the age of 65 for ballot fraud. It also places tougher penalties on repeat offenders or people who commit multiple offenses during the same election.Democrats also opposed the bill saying provisions in it would criminalize family members advising their elderly family members on who to vote for on their mail-in ballot. "I'm concerned that this bill while well-intentioned, it has very many unintended consequences that are going to hurt the very people we are trying to protect," said Sen. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio. "We have to be very careful not to inadvertently make criminals out of people's families."Dallas Sen. Royce West also criticized a lack of input from Democratic lawmakers, saying their concerns were not considered in the crafting of the bill. Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, said his door had been open for all interested parties to give their input. He noted that West had visited his office to discuss the bill that week. "Every member of this body had input," Hancock said.West countered, saying: "You heard from us, you listened to us, but did you take any of our suggestions?"On social media, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick celebrated the bill's passage by the Legislature.   Continue reading...

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