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Editorial: Lawmakers have work to do to safeguard Texas elections

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Texas Senate Bill 9 was written to improve voting security. That is an effort all Texans should support, and one that ought not be thought of in partisan terms.

Unfortunately, there is no longer such an animal in the political universe. Perhaps one day it will re-emerge but for now it is extinct.

That is why SB 9 is either in deep jeopardy of passing in an unacceptable state or, because of legislative rules regarding scheduling, may soon be dead.

After passing in the Senate, a House committee stripped the bill of what its author, Republican state Sen. Bryan Hughes of Mineola, calls its heart: a provision that voting machines must provide an auditable paper trail.

This was a bipartisan part of the bill, so we don’t understand why the Republican majority on the committee killed it. Once that happened, though, it seriously diminished the overall need for the entire bill — at least in terms of voting security.

Another provision that could help in Gregg County and many other Texas counties is still a part of the bill. It regards “vote harvesting.”

These activities, in which an individual or group gets people to use curbside voting to cast ballots, or to vote by mail for a certain candidate, is not illegal in Texas as it is in many other states. In both instances, however, the question arises about who is actually filling out those ballots, and why.

Curbside voting is meant for people who cannot get into the polling place because of a physical disability. It is not meant for someone to pull up a van full of able-bodied persons and ask for the service. Someone could be telling them how to vote and that would be illegal.

Unfortunately, the method the bill takes to cure this problem still needs a bit of work.

Under Hughes’ bill, if an unrelated person were driving three or more disabled people to the polls for curbside voting, that driver would be required to fill out an affidavit certifying the voters were unable to go in the polls themselves.

Election officials would also be allowed to watch the voter actually mark the ballot and sign their name. In other words, those who voted by curbside would lose the secrecy of their vote. This is not what we want.

This regulation could lead to some not wanting to vote but that is clearly not the point of the bill. Given the demographics of Hughes’ Northeast Texas district, we don’t think he is trying to suppress the votes of senior citizens.

What has rankled the opposition much more is increasing the penalties for putting false information on voting materials. That act, now a misdemeanor, would become a felony.

Opponents — including many Republican election officials — warn this would endanger those who make simple and unintentional mistakes, including volunteer voting registrars. They say a wrong ZIP code or misspelling could result in a prison sentence. Again, we do not believe that is the intent.

Hughes says the goal is to catch those who are intentionally fraudulent, but this is another part of the bill that needs to be cleared up. We don’t want any unintended consequences.

Documented questionable use of mail ballots in Gregg County has made clear the need for measures to combat vote harvesting in all its guises, and we are hopeful lawmakers will find the solution.

But Hughes is correct in saying that upgrading voting machines is the bill’s most important provision. We know from our last presidential election that foreign powers are more a threat to our democracy than is fraud from within. A paper trail to verify each vote is correctly cast and counted must be added to our election security measures.

The House and Senate must make it a priority to address these issues to safeguard elections in Texas.

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