Texarkana, Texas' state senator says his election bill would improve security, but civil rights advocates claim it would cause more problems than it would solve.
Authored by Texas Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, Senate Bill 9 would require paper records of votes, enhance penalties for some election crimes, require new procedures for some voters and those who assist them, and give new powers to election workers, poll watchers, state officials and law enforcement-all meant to ensure election integrity, Hughes said in an interview Friday. But critics say the bill needlessly puts innocent people at risk, creates the potential for privacy violations and effectively suppresses the vote by increasing red tape and making it scarier to cast a ballot.
By a party-line vote of 19 to 12, the Republican-majority Senate passed SB9 on April 15. The bill has been referred to the House of Representatives' Elections Committee, which has scheduled a hearing on it for Wednesday. If the committee then votes to recommend the bill, the Republican-controlled House could pass it by the end of the week, with only about a week to spare before May 27, when the Legislature's regular session is set to adjourn.
Rep. Gary VanDeaver, R-New Boston, Texarkana's delegate to the House, said Friday he plans to vote yes on the measure.
"The bill is aimed at making sure every vote counts and is counted accurately, and making sure people don't cheat," Hughes said. He cited evidence and testimony given to the Senate Select Committee on Election Integrity as the bill's basis.
"We heard from prosecution, law enforcement, elections administrators, campaign workers, volunteers, political parties," he said, "and we just learned about ways that people are cheating."
The "heart" of the bill is creating a paper trail of voting, Hughes said. It requires all voting systems in the state to create a paper backup record of voting, gives poll watchers new powers to inspect documents and even photograph or take video of vote counting, institutes new procedures for election workers, and creates a "risk-limiting audit" process that uses statistical models to spot-check election results for accuracy.
SB9 would also make a false statement on a voter registration application a state jail felony. Impeding a roadway or walkway within 500 feet of a polling place would be a crime, as would taking a ballot from a voter.
To protect sting operations, the bill exempts law enforcement officers from prosecution if they break election law in the course of an investigation. It gives the state attorney general access to voter registration rolls. It allows the secretary of state to disclose registered voters' Social Security numbers and dates of birth to other states and jurisdictions in order, Hughes said, to prevent multi-state registrations.
The most controversial aspects of the bill are procedures added for those who vote by mail and those who assist disabled voters. The point is to try and eliminate instances where people manipulate or intimidate voters in the guise of assisting them, Hughes said.
When someone other than a family member assists a disabled voter at the polling place, poll watchers would be allowed to enter the voting station with them, witness them mark their ballot and then check the ballot for accuracy before it is cast.
SB9 would require people who vote by mail because of disability to sign a statement affirming they are unable to go to a polling place without needing assistance or endangering their health. Anyone who assists someone else with a mail-in ballot would have to complete a form stating their name and address, the manner in which the voter requires assistance, the reason the assistance is necessary, and the relationship of the assistant to the voter.
Anyone not their family member who transports three or more disabled voters to a polling place where they request curbside voting would have to fill out a similar form.
That portion of the bill has received attention on social media in recent days, with many claiming it would outlaw carpooling to the polls for ordinary, harmless reasons such as convenience for nursing home residents. But the rule would apply only when the voters in question say they cannot physically enter the polling place, in which case election workers must come outside to accommodate them.
"Curbside voting is the key there. If that's the case, then the person that drove them has to fill out a form," Hughes said. "That election worker who's driving them in the van, he gets to see how everybody voted and help them with their ballot and make sure they voted right. Then he turns them in, and so it's obviously a problem. So if you drive a dozen people or a hundred people to the polls and they walk in and vote, this would not be implicated at all."
It all adds up to making it harder to vote in Texas, where election participation is already very low, said Zenen Jaimes Perez, advocacy and communication director for the Texas Civil Rights Project.
"Different barriers make us almost last place in the country for civil participation and voter registration. And so our main problem with SB9 is that it is definitely a bill that would add more red tape and more barriers to the process of voting," Perez said, citing three categories of issues with the bill.
First, he said, it enhances criminal penalties for potentially simple mistakes in the voting process.
"We already have an election system in our election code that more people can get criminal penalties for mistakenly forgetting to turn in a voter registration form or for registering someone in a county where they're not deputized. Unfortunately, SB9 enhances some of those criminal penalties that would have a chilling effect over large-scale voter registration drives in the state," Perez said.
The bill also would put obstacles in the path of those who facilitate voting, such as those drivers who transport people to the polls for curbside voting, he said.
"Unfortunately, it's just another hurdle, another barrier, where you can imagine where someone who's transporting voters would have to ask pretty invasive questions to people to see if they actually should be driving people to the polls," Perez said.
He said the bill's information access provisions also raise privacy concerns.
"It gives election officials and also non-election officials like the attorney general access to really private information about a voter. For example, the attorney general will be able to get information about the voters' name, address, Social Security number, other private information.
"The purpose for that is unclear, but what we do know is that statewide officials have made it a clear aim to prosecute folks who they think might be making simple mistakes in the voting process, and enhancing the power of these state agencies and state actors would also be another chilling effect over the folks trying to make sure civic engagement happens across the state," Perez said, adding that low rates of fraud do not justify making voting harder for others.
"There's always going to be bad stuff and bad actors in the world, but that doesn't mean that we have to throw up every barrier," he said. "That's part of our cultural identity that we value civic participation, we value more people voting, we value people getting engaged.
"Should we throw away that value and make it harder for everyone else because there might be a bad actor out there? We would argue no, and in fact we should be doing things that encourage more civic participation, given that Texas is really behind on a lot of the metrics that make sure that people are casting their ballot and having their voice heard in government."