Texas GOP Wants Stronger Penalties for Illegal Voting Tactics, But Some Worry About Chilling Effect

AUSTIN -- Voting rights groups and disability advocates descended on the Capitol on Wednesday to oppose a bill they say would have a chilling effect on voting and voter registration efforts.Senate Bill 9 by Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, would increase criminal penalties for providing false information on a voter registration application, increase the investigative powers of law enforcement over elections, and require those assisting voters to fill out more detailed forms on how they are helping.The combination of those proposals, voting rights advocates say, will scare away volunteers who help at voter registration drives or assist people with disabilities or the elderly cast a ballot because they won’t want to risk having a crime attached to their name.“SB 9 would make voting harder, scarier and more confusing for voters while at the same time imposing new red tape and unnecessary bureaucracy on our county election officials,” said James Slattery, a lawyer with the Texas Civil Rights Project. For years, Republican state leaders have focused on tightening voting requirements to prevent what they see as a widespread voter fraud problem in the state. Democrats and voting rights organizations characterize those efforts as overzealous attempts to root out minor problems that end up infringing on the voting rights of many Texans, often minorities and younger voters. Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, who is shepherding the bill through the House, said many of the criticisms were based on the Senate version of the bill, which she amended before the hearing in front of the House Elections Committee on Wednesday. “The intent of this committee substitute is neither voter suppression nor to enable voter fraud,” she said. “Ultimately the intent of SB 9 is to strengthen election integrity and to make sure all votes cast are legitimate votes and no legal voter is inhibited from casting their ballot.”But opponents decried a decision by the committee, which is led by Klick, to end registration for witnesses seeking to testify on the bill within 30 minutes of the beginning of the hearing. They said many people had travelled from all over the state to testify on the bill. Advocates for people with disabilities said Klick was receptive to their concerns and offered changes to the bill that eased some of their worries, but not all.Under one part of the bill, the penalty for “unlawfully assisting” a voter would be increased from a Class A misdemeanor, which could lead to a year in jail, to a state jail felony and up to a two-year sentence.“Our concern is, if you assist me and you were assisting me in a way that looked funny to a poll watcher, it could be misunderstood that you were providing me answers,” said Molly Broadway, with Texans for Disability Rights.Advocates said another part of the bill could make it difficult for assisted living centers to offer their residents the chance to vote. That provision would require people who drive at least three non-family members to the polls for curbside voting to sign a form listing their name, address and why they are providing assistance.Workers at assisted living centers could refuse to take people with disabilities to the polls for fear of ending up as part of an election investigation, advocates said.“This bill in general sends some generic chilling messages about people who need assistance [to vote],” said Bob Kafka, a member of Rev Up, which focuses on helping people with disabilities vote.Klick said her change to the bill specifies that only people who were helping a person “curbside vote” would be subject to that requirement. But the other measures were meant to ensure that a voter assistant was not unduly influencing a person’s vote.Voting rights groups also said the bill would increase penalties for people who make “honest mistakes” on their voter registration applications. Currently, providing false information on an application is a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail. The bill would increase that penalty to a state jail felony. Organizations who help people register to vote say such an increase would make their jobs tougher.  Continue reading...

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