(CN) — A Texas bill proposing new burdens for citizens who help disabled, elderly or sick people get to the polls has angered civil rights groups who say it is Republicans’ latest ploy to suppress voter turnout.
Freshman state Sen. Bryan Hughes, who represents 16 counties in northeast Texas, says the most important change called for in his Senate Bill 9 is to overhaul electronic voting machines so they can create an auditable paper backup of returned ballots. (See Texas Senate Journal, p. 14.)
Senate Bill 9 would allow the state’s 254 counties to tap federal or state funds to revamp their voting machines.
A bipartisan push for a paper trail gained momentum after the Department of Homeland Security reported in 2017 that Russian hackers tried to infiltrate the election systems of 21 states before the 2016 presidential election.
Hughes’ expansive bill would also increase the penalty for people caught making false statements on voter-registration forms from a Class B misdemeanor to a felony; a move opponents say could ensnare people who made honest mistakes on the form.
The Texas Senate passed the bill 19-12 along party lines last month and it has been referred to an elections committee in the Texas House. Legislators have less than three weeks to amend the bill, as the session ends May 27. Governor Greg Abbott’s office did not respond Wednesday to a message asking if he supports the measure.
Critics also blasted a provision in SB 9 that requires people who drive three or more disabled voters to the polls to fill out an affidavit affirming the voters “are physically unable to enter the polling place without personal assistance or likelihood of injuring their health.”
The driver would also have to list their names and addresses, but would be exempt from the paperwork if the voters are their family members.
Under current law, election officials can deliver a ballot to a disabled voter “at the polling place entrance or curb” and a person accompanying the voter can “select the voter’s ballot and deposit the ballot in the ballot box.”
SB 9 authorizes poll workers or precinct judges to be in the voting booth with a voter being helped by someone who is not their kin, and to examine the ballot before it is electronically submitted or dropped in a ballot box.
The Texas Civil Rights Project says SB 9 “turns back the clock” on Democracy.
“SB 9 seeks to make voting much more difficult, confusing, and scary for voters, all while creating more red tape and bureaucracy for county election administrators,” the nonprofit said in a statement.
Hughes, at an April 15 state Senate hearing, addressed critics who said SB 9 would disenfranchise some Texans.
“What does the bill do? It says, if you’re going to bring someone to the polls and then help them with their ballot, look at their ballot, look over their shoulder, participate in that process, invade that secret ballot, yes, we want to know your name and why you’re doing that,” he said.
He continued: “It doesn’t say their vote doesn’t count. The vote is still counted. The only thing this bill does is open up the process for transparency and for accountability.”
The bill is a priority for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a conservative ally of President Trump, who leads the Texas Senate.
The debate is unfolding after a court settlement in which Texas effectively admitted it had bungled a bid to clean up voter rolls.
The state agreed on April 26 to pay $450,000 in attorney’s fees to civil rights groups that filed three federal lawsuits claiming Texas Secretary of State David Whitley tried to suppress Latinos’ votes when he sent a list of 95,000 people to county voter registrars across the state, urging them to investigate whether noncitizens had voted.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton praised Whitley when he sent out the list in January for “his proactive work in safeguarding” the state’s elections, but many people on the list confirmed they are naturalized citizens.
From the time Paxton took office in January 2015 through May 14, 2018, his prosecutors filed election fraud charges against 29 people, including Rosa Maria Ortega, a mother of four with a sixth-grade education.
A Tarrant County jury sentenced Ortega to eight years in prison in February 2017 for illegal voting after she admitted she had mistakenly thought her legal resident status allowed her to vote.
Ortega voted for Republicans, including Paxton, in 2012 and 2014.
Texas’ 46.3% voter turnout in the 2018 general election was the ninth-lowest in the country, according to the United States Elections Project. It was higher only than the rates in West Virginia, Tennessee, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Louisiana, New York and Hawaii, which came in last at 39.3%. The District of Columbia turnout was 43.7%.