East Texas state Sen. Bryan Hughes’ signature bill on election security won passage Monday in the Texas Senate and moves to the House of Representatives for debate.
Senate Bill 9 creates a paper trail for electronic voting.
It also takes aim at voter fraud that can occur when people who help disabled voters try to influence how they vote.
It enhances the penalty for making a false statement on a mail ballot application from a misdemeanor to state jail felony and requires those who help voters who are not family members to sign a form documenting their role.
The bill also would require people who help disabled voters cast a mail-in ballot officially certify that the voter they help is physically unable to enter a poll without risk to harm. In addition, it allows poll watchers to accompany both the voter and helper into the voting area.
“The heart of the bill is that paper ballot, that paper backup,” Hughes, R-Mineola, said as he urged passage of the measure. “This is not a partisan issue. ... It says if you’re going to bring someone to the polls and help them cast their ballot ... then, yes. We want to know your names.”
Hughes chaired a Select Committee on Election Security last summer in preparation for the legislative session that opened in January. Many of the provisions in his Senate Bill 9, he told senators, came from sworn testimony from Democrats and Republicans.
The bill passed on a 19-12 vote along party lines.
“For whatever reason, the national Democrats made this a lightning rod,” he said. “Election integrity is important to all of us.”
The bill now goes to the House of Representatives, where Hughes said state Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-North Richland Hills, plans to introduce a companion bill in the House Elections Committee, which she chairs.
On Monday, Hughes noted suspected mail ballot fraud “in the (Rio Grande) Valley, in East Texas,” that his committee learned about. One of those cases is in Gregg County, where mail ballots from the 2018 Democratic primary are the subject of a Texas Attorney General’s Office investigation.
Eight amendments added during floor debate Monday further clarified Hughes’ intent, including one that would have required a polling site within 3 miles of every voter. Hughes removed that provision at the behest of state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who said it could unduly raise election costs in larger counties.
Hughes agreed to leave the number of polling sites in each county unchanged from their 2018 numbers. He also rejected amendments that would have placed more polls at college campuses and would have created an online voter registration option, saying they were beyond the scope of his measure.
Hughes successfully defended a measure in the bill that makes it illegal to “impede” the pathway to polling sites 500 feet from the poll entrance. That’s in addition to the established ban on actual campaigning within 100 feet of poll entrances.
Hughes accepted an amendment from Democratic state Sen. Jose Menendez of San Antonio to include pregnant voters among those considered disabled and eligible for help.
The bill would require someone who drives people to the polls and asks that a voting machine be brought to the vehicle for its disabled occupants sign a statement saying who they are and why the voter they brought needed assistance.
Hughes’ bill also orders election judges to not accept voter registration forms that are prefilled out. That’s because those often arrive at the voter’s home with boxes saying the applicant is 18 years or older and is an American prechecked.
Critics of the bill said someone could be guilty of a crime by turning in one of those prefilled-out applications, and Hughes on Monday said those registration applications will be barred from use.
“It cannot be accepted if (those boxes were) prechecked,” he said. “There are no changes in this bill that would provide a trap for the unwary, or a ‘gotcha.’”
Hughes also defended the increased penalties for “knowingly” committing voter fraud, saying more district attorneys are likely to prosecute the crime if more serious penalties are attached. The change raises the maximum jail time from one year to two, and it boosts the maximum fine from $4,000 to $10,000.
Also, the bill establishes a civil avenue for people who suspect they have been wronged by voter fraud to sue those they feel are responsible.
It also includes a $30 million fund to help counties retrofit electronic voting machines to create a paper trail if they are not so equipped now.
Hughes also said a series of “risk-limiting audits” will be scheduled to randomly check the accuracy of the paper-trail electronic voting system.