A bill raising criminal penalties for certain election-related offenses and imposing new voting restrictions cleared a major hurdle Friday, setting the stage for yet another floor debate over voter suppression at the Texas Legislature.
On a party line vote, the Texas House Elections Committee passed Senate Bill 9, which contains measures tightening rules for assisting elderly or disabled voters and turns some misdemeanors, like improperly assisting or filling out ballot applications, into state jail felonies. While Republican supporters frame SB 9 as an “election integrity” bill, a coalition of civil rights groups call it a “dangerous new assault on voting rights in Texas.”
The passage Friday comes days after more than a 200 people registered opposition against the bill in a public hearing. On Wednesday, lawmakers on the elections committee heard hours of testimony from several dozen opponents in a meeting that ended after midnight. While a brief delay, due to one Republican member’s illness, gave opponents short-lived hope of stalling the bill in committee, members convened an impromptu meeting for the vote during a recess in the House on Friday morning. The bill has already passed the more-conservative Senate and faces a Tuesday deadline for initial approval in the full House.
SB 9 is the latest salvo in the GOP-driven crusade to police the vote under the guise of widespread voter fraud. The proposal is championed by some of the same tea party-backed lawmakers who passed legislation last session cracking down on mail-in voting. SB 9 author and state Senator Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, says he hopes the bill spurs prosecutors to begin “prioritizing these crimes.”
One component of the law would make it easier to prosecute people who vote when they’re ineligible, even if they believed they were allowed to cast a ballot. Voting rights groups argue that would increase the likelihood of prosecutors going after people like Rosa Ortega, a legal resident sentenced to eight years in prison for mistakenly believing she was allowed to vote. At a rally on the Capitol steps Wednesday morning, voting rights advocates urged lawmakers to kill the bill, warning that it could “create more Crystal Masons,” a reference to the Fort Worth woman sentenced to five years in prison last year for casting a provisional ballot in the 2016 election despite being ineligible to vote. Mason, who was still on community supervision for a 4-year-old tax fraud conviction, says she didn’t know that prohibited her from voting under Texas law. (People convicted of felonies are allowed to vote in Texas only once they finish their sentence, including any kind of supervision or parole.)
County elections administrators who testified against SB 9 Wednesday argued that certain provisions criminalizing election workers for making simple mistakes would make it harder to staff polling places. Advocates for Texans with disabilities say they oppose the bill because it imposes strict rules that would make it more difficult to get assistance at the polls. They also worry the bill infringes on the rights of Texans with disabilities in other ways: the version of SB 9 passed by the Senate last month would allow election workers to watch someone vote and examine their ballot if they’re assisted by anyone who isn’t a relative.
“Our concern is that there’s no provision in the code that would give safe harbor to someone who’s assisting voters with disabilities,” Jeff Miller, project director for Disability Rights Texas, told committee members. “There’s no requirement for training poll watchers on what it even looks like to assist a voter with a disability.”
In a letter to committee members, county judges leading five of the state’s largest counties called SB 9 dangerous and misguided. “We all believe in election security, but this bill does nothing to increase faith in the integrity of our democracy,” they wrote. “Instead, at every turn, SB 9 makes voting harder, scarier, and more confusing to voters.”
SB 9, one of Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s “top priorities” this year, now moves to the full House for what’s likely to be a heated, partisan debate over voting rights in the waning days of the session. The GOP push for the bill came after Democrats saw significant gains in both statewide and legislative races in the 2018 midterm and would be implemented ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
During Wednesday’s committee hearing, state Representative Rafael Anchía, a Dallas Democrat who chairs the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, tied the legislation to Texas’ long history of voter suppression, including numerous federal court findings over the past decade that Texas lawmakers intentionally discriminated against minority voters. Anchía also cited the botched voter purge that kicked off this year’s legislative session, a GOP-driven effort that wrongly targeted tens of thousands of naturalized citizen voters.
“This is not old-timey news reel, this is contemporaneous, this decade,” Anchía said. “We’re very concerned that, on the heels of all that in one decade alone, we’re following up with this Christmas tree bill.”