The Dallas Morning News

Voter fraud bill gets initial OK

A top priority for Patrick, SB 2 would up crime to a felony

- By PHILIP JANKOWSKI Austin Bureau Twitter: @Philjankow­ski

AUSTIN — The Texas Senate gave initial approval Monday to a bill that would increase the criminal penalty for voter fraud to a felony and make the crime easier to prosecute.

Senate Bill 2 is the first of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s priority bills to pass in the Senate. It would boost the penalty of voter fraud from a Class A misdemeano­r to a seconddegr­ee felony, an offense that carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.

Supporters of the bill say it restores the penalty for voter fraud back to what it had been in Texas for nearly 50 years before a little-noticed provision in a controvers­ial 2021 election bill weakened the law.

“It’s been that way for almost 50 years, courts have determined it that way, it makes sense,” said the bill’s author, Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-mineola.

Critics, however, say the Republican-backed measure will discourage voting and that it threatens to ensnare people in felony prosecutio­n who mistakenly attempt to vote while ineligible.

The vote was 19-12 with all Democrats voting against.

‘It is a menace’

Democrats focused debate on language in the bill that would make voter fraud a crime when someone submits a provisiona­l ballot even when they weren’t aware of their ineligibil­ity to vote.

SB 2 would require only that a person be aware of circumstan­ces that make them ineligible to vote — such as being on parole for a felony — to be charged with a crime.

“It is a menace, and I think it will make criminals out of people who are not criminals,” Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-dallas, said on the Senate floor. “I hope that is not your intention.”

Patrick had called for legislatio­n to return voter fraud to a felony. But Hughes’ bill went one step further with a focus on a voter fraud case involving a Tarrant County woman that has drawn national attention.

Crystal Mason was sentenced to five years in prison after she submitted a provisiona­l ballot in the 2016 presidenti­al election while still on parole for a federal felony fraud conviction. Felons are prohibited from voting in Texas until they serve their entire sentence.

Mason’s case was in mind when lawmakers approved sweeping changes to election law in 2021 that included a retroactiv­e measure requiring a person to know they were committing voter fraud in order to be prosecuted.

SB 1 changes in peril

Mason cited the law in an appeal seeking to overturn her conviction. In May, the Court of Criminal Appeals ruled in favor of Mason in part, ordering a lower court to review her conviction.

Now it appears the changes in law under SB 1 that could exonerate Mason could be undone in SB 2. Hughes and other lawmakers referenced her case multiple times during debate on the bill.

It was unclear if the bill’s passage would undo the Court of Criminal Appeals ruling. Mason’s attorney did not immediatel­y return a message seeking comment.

During the 2021 session, a provision of a wide-ranging election bill changed the penalty for voting illegally from a felony to a Class A misdemeano­r. The penalty reduction was placed in a Republican-supported amendment in the Texas House that the Senate accepted to bring the controvers­ial bill across the finish line.

After SB 1’s passage, several Republican lawmakers expressed frustratio­n with the change that they said slipped by unnoticed. Efforts were undertaken to restore the penalty to a felony in a special session in 2021, but that was thwarted in the House after Speaker Dade Phelan said he didn’t want to relitigate the issue.

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