Bill up­ping mail-in bal­lot fraud penal­ties gets first ap­proval,

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Johnathan Sil­ver jsil­ver@states­man.com Con­tact Johnathan Sil­ver at 512-445-3631.

Af­ter more than three hours of de­bate Wed­nes­day, the Texas House voted 90-37 to ten­ta­tively ap­prove a Se­nate bill that would in­crease penal­ties for mail-in bal­lot fraud. The House is sched­uled to take a fi­nal vote on the mea­sure Thurs­day.

Se­nate Bill 5, by Sen. Kelly Han­cock, R-North Rich­land Hills, would re­quire a sig­na­ture ver­i­fi­ca­tion process for early bal­lots, no­ti­fi­ca­tion of re­jected ones within a month af­ter an elec­tion and a process for cor­rect­ing er­rors. Pun­ish­ment for com­mit­ting mail-in voter fraud in some cases could carry a penalty of up to 10 years in prison. Han­cock and bill sup­port­ers have said the bill would pro­tect the most vul­ner­a­ble vot­ers: se­niors and peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties.

But some House Democrats said SB 5 fo­cuses more on penal­ties than so­lu­tions to fraud, and that a spe­cial ses­sion isn’t enough time to draft sound leg­is­la­tion. Rep. Eric John­son, D-Dal­las, called SB 5 “sloppy” and ar­gued for a more ro­bust con­ver­sa­tion be­fore mov­ing for­ward on voter fraud leg­is­la­tion.

“The sys­tem needs to be re­formed to make the com­mis­sion of the crime im­pos­si­ble or more dif­fi­cult to com­mit in the first place, not en­hanc­ing the penalty,” John­son said.

John­son of­fered an amend­ment that would have es­sen­tially killed SB 5. The cham­ber voted it down.

The House ap­proved changes to the bill that would pro­hibit elec­tronic sig­na­tures on mail-in bal­lot ap­pli­ca­tions and re­peal House Bill 658 — passed dur­ing the reg­u­lar ses­sion ear­lier this year — which gives vot­ing pri­or­ity to peo­ple with mo­bil­ity is­sues and makes it eas­ier for peo­ple in res­i­den­tial care fa­cil­i­ties to vote by bring­ing bal­lots and an elec­tion of­fi­cial to their lo­ca­tion — if at least five vot­ers liv­ing there re­quest a bal­lot. Gov. Greg Ab­bott signed the bill into law in June, set­ting it to take ef­fect on Sept. 1.

Rep. Craig Gold­man, R-Fort Worth, who is car- ry­ing SB 5 in the House, said HB 658 is an un­funded man­date to nurs­ing homes and sim­i­lar fa­cil­i­ties and that it would be dif­fi­cult for some coun­ties to make the ac­com­mo­da­tions for se­niors and peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties.

Un­der SB 5, a per­son could face jail time if they try to in­flu­ence a vote “in the pres­ence of the bal­lot or dur­ing the vot­ing process,” a part of the bill that has drawn the most crit­i­cism from Democrats and other op­po­nents of the bill. They ar­gue that spe­cific lan­guage could land peo­ple in le­gal jeop­ardy if they dis­cuss a can­di­date’s qual­i­fi­ca­tions to a loved one while the bal­lot is present. Gold­man said that premise is “un­re­al­is­tic.”

“I don’t think any other fam­ily mem­ber is go­ing to turn in their aunt or their un­cle, their dad, their mother or their brother for com­mit­ting fraud, if they’re sit­ting around the kitchen ta­ble and a bal­lot hap­pens to be there, and they talk about how their go­ing to vote,” Gold­man said.

RALPH BARRERA / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

Texas Rep. Craig Gold­man, here ex­chang­ing words with Rep. Jodie Lau­den­berg, is car­ry­ing SB 5 in the House.

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