A coalition of civil rights groups is warning that a new GOP bill winding its way through the Texas Legislature imposes substantial and unnecessary burdens on voters.
Among other provisions, Senate Bill 9, an omnibus “election integrity” bill filed by state Senator Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, would raise criminal penalties for certain election-related offenses; establish tighter rules for assisting disabled, elderly or absentee voters; and increase the likelihood that people who mistakenly violate election laws face criminal prosecution.
In a Tuesday letter urging Hughes to radically change or withdraw SB 9, the coalition, which includes the Texas Civil Rights Project and MOVE Texas, called the bill a “dangerous new assault on voting rights in Texas.”
Bowing to pressure from tea party groups, lawmakers passed legislation last session cracking down on mail-in voting. Hughes’ proposal extends that crackdown by turning misdemeanors — improperly assisting mail-in voters or filling out ballot applications — into state jail felonies.
Hughes’ bill also creates an entirely new election-related crime, making it a Class B misdemeanor to “impede” a walkway, sidewalk, parking lot or roadway within 1,000 feet of a polling place “in a manner that hinders the person from entering the polling place.” While civil rights groups call the new offense “vaguely worded,” Chris Davis, Williamson County’s chief elections administrator and president of the Texas Association of Elections Administrators, wondered how elections officials would even enforce it. “One thousand feet could be across the street, in a neighboring lot, well outside the purview of what we say is for an election judge today,” Davis told lawmakers at Monday’s Senate Committee on State Affairs hearing. The legislation was left pending.
Representatives for the Texas Democratic Party and the League of Women Voters testified against SB 9 at the hearing but said they support some elements of Hughes’ bill, such as a requirement that Texas counties shift to voting machines with paper trails — which most counties are fine with so long as the state ponies up some funds. The civil rights coalition’s letter to Hughes’ office urges him to keep the parts related to election machine security and ditch everything else.
Many of the groups that oppose Hughes’ bill recently sued state officials to stop a botched voter purge that targeted tens of thousands of naturalized citizens. Last month San Antonio federal district court judge Fred Biery ground the purge to a halt, calling it a flawed solution in search of a problem. “The evidence has shown in a hearing before this court that there is no widespread voter fraud,” Biery wrote in his order. “The challenge is how to ferret the infinitesimal needles out of the haystack of 15 million Texas voters.”
Yet in his statement of intent on SB 9, Hughes wrote: “As efforts to identify and prosecute election crimes have intensified, we have gained a better understanding of the ways certain bad actors take advantage of holes in the electoral process to alter the balance of elections.”
Civil rights groups say SB 9 is another front in the Republican effort to erect barriers to voting under the guise of “election integrity.” For instance, they warn that one element of the law, which effectively eliminates any intent requirement for certain election-related offenses, would make it easier to prosecute people like Rosa Ortega, a legal resident sentenced to 8 years in prison for mistakenly believing she was allowed to vote, and Crystal Mason, a Tarrant County woman sentenced to five years in prison for voting while on probation.
“SB 9 would sharply escalate an ongoing campaign of voter suppression, by making voting substantially harder for thousands of Texans, and by spreading fear that people may be thrown in jail for honest mistakes while trying to vote,” the groups wrote.
Hughes’ office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday afternoon.