Texas Republicans Forge Ahead With Voting Restrictions

Texas Democrats have railed against these GOP so-called election reform bills, deemed an emergency item this legislative session by Governor Greg Abbott, as a solution in search of a voting fraud problem.

Voters line up outside Richardson City Hall for early voting Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020, in Richardson, Texas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — With Texas Republican state lawmakers using their majority to push through “election integrity” bills, Democrats sought clarity Thursday on how the legislation would impose criminal penalties on election judges for obstructing poll watchers and what type of assistance for disabled voters would be considered felony offenses.

House Bill 6 has provisions its author Rep. Briscoe Cain, whose district includes several east Houston suburbs, says are meant to “preserve the purity of the ballot box” and ensure uniformity in elections across the state’s 254 counties.

Cain, an attorney, traveled to Pennsylvania in November to help the campaign of former President Donald Trump suss out purported voting irregularities in the Keystone State before he was appointed chair of the Texas House Elections Committee in February.

Much of committee’s hearing Thursday on HB 6 has focused on clauses that would make it a misdemeanor for a presiding election judge to have a poll watcher removed from or make them leave a polling place.

Rep. John Bucy, an Austin Democrat, repeatedly said he believes it contradicts with other language in the bill allowing election judges to have poll watchers booted for violating the Texas penal code.

He asked Cain if election judges would have authority to call the police on a poll watcher intimidating voters or otherwise disrupting the election process.

“Because it says they can’t remove them…are they not the middle man and thus find themselves guilty of removing the watcher?” Bucy said.

Several Democratic lawmakers and witnesses said they believe it would have a chilling effect on recruiting poll workers who were already in short supply for the November elections due to the pandemic and the fact that many poll workers are retirees, an age group prone to becoming seriously ill from Covid-19.

The bill would also mandate anybody, other than an election officer, who helps a voter fill out a mail-in ballot or vote in person must fill out a form with their name and address, the manner in which they are assisting the voter, the reason the assistance is needed and their relationship to the voter, under penalty of perjury.

Cain said only people with disabilities that render them unable to see or write, or who can’t understand the ballot due to language barriers, qualify for help.

Advising the Texas House Elections Committee on the bill Thursday, Jonathan White, chief of the election fraud division of the Texas Attorney General’s Office, said assistance fraud happens all over the state.

He described the most egregious case he’s investigated: “After the assistant punches the information into the voting kiosk the voter asks, ‘When do I get to vote?’ And the assistant says, ‘You already did.’ So that an example that’s pretty clear-cut.”

Rep. Mike Schofield, R-Houston, said toughening up the regulations of voting assistants is to ensure they are not helping people who don’t need it, which would effectively be vote harvesting.

The legislation would add provisions to the Texas Election Code, defining vote harvesting as direct interaction with one or more voters in connection with an official ballot, ballot by mail or an application for a mail-in ballot.

Texas candidates regularly mail absentee ballot applications to voters age 65 and over, who automatically qualify. Individuals and advocacy groups can also provide them to voters and they can be printed off the websites of the Texas Secretary of State.

These activities would not be considered vote harvesting under the proposed legislation, White said, because there is no direct interaction with the voter. A canvasser could even hand them out to people in their homes, he said.

“Once you start dealing with the documents and assisting that’s a different ballgame,” White said.

Democrats have railed against these GOP election reforms, deemed an emergency item this legislative session by Governor Greg Abbott, as a solution in search of a problem, pointing to Texas Elections Director Keith Ingram’s testimony in a Legislature hearing in early March that “Texas had an election that was smooth and secure” in November, despite record turnout and Abbott extending early voting on account of the pandemic.

“More people have been killed in mass shootings in the past two years in Texas than people have been convicted of voter fraud,” Rep. Nicole Collier, a Fort Worth Democrat, told the committee.

Since 2015, the Texas Attorney General’s Office has secured 16 voter fraud convictions. Counting those accused of voter fraud who have avoided convictions through deferred adjudication deals the number of defendants is 74.

“I’m trying to understand when we look at the number on the grand scale,” Bucy said. “With 74 defendants, 16.9 million registered voters, in that time this 74 would entail we’re talking about over 40 million vote casts….we’re talking about .00000448 of a percent.”

He continued, “I’m trying to understand why we need these increased penalties. Why is the system not working right now when we’re talking about such a minute percentage?”

Despite those numbers, White said, voter fraud cases in Texas are currently at all-time high.

“We have 510 offenses pending against 43 defendants in court right now,” he said.

He added the complexity of the cases is also increasing because they involve harvesting of mail-in ballots.

White compared the data to a Rorschach test, “I’ve got something folks can use to prove that fraud is kind of a problem, and I’ve got stuff that shows it’s not a big deal. So I’m glad I can make everybody happy.”

He said HB 6 would give the Texas Attorney General’s Office more tools to prosecute vote harvesters.

But citing a report from the Houston Chronicle, Collier said 72% of the voter fraud cases of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican who took office in 2015, have been against minorities.

“If you have authority to pursue more cases, logic is you are going to pursue them against people of color,” Collier said, asking for verification of the data in the Chronicle article.

“I don’t have the percentage,” White said. “We don’t track race and we don’t consider race. It wouldn’t be appropriate for us to consider in prosecutions… For these provisions we will take cases as they come, take them and prosecute them based on facts and nothing else.”

The House Elections Committee hearing was still going late Thursday as more than 150 people had signed up to testify on HB 6.

The debate is taking place after Republicans in the Texas Senate early Thursday passed Senate Bill 7, taking aim at steps Democratic county clerks took last year to make voting easier for Texans scared of catching Covid-19 at the polls.

SB 7 limits early voting hours from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., bans drive-thru voting and bars election officials from sending vote-by-mail applications to people who don’t request them.

With Republicans controlling both the Texas Senate and House, Cal Jillson, Southern Methodist University political science professor, said SB 7 will be signed into law by Governor Abbott.

He said he does not believe courts will strike down SB 7 as unconstitutional because it will return Texas voting regulations to the status quo before the pandemic.

But he said there may be other Texas GOP bills in the works with more restrictive voting limitations, like those passed along party lines in Georgia and signed by Republican Governor Brian Kemp last week.

Reached by phone, the professor noted no one has found appreciable voter fraud occurred in Texas’ November elections despite the high turnout.

“Texas is among the lowest-voter-turnout states in the country,” Jillson said. “So you would wish the Legislature was trying to encourage additional turnout in ways that were secure, rather than pushing down on turnout.”

“That’s the problem here really. Even if the bills are not overtly racist, they do make it more difficult for people to get to the ballot box conveniently,” he added.

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