Two months ago, Texas lawmakers quietly did something rare in this statehouse: They sent Gov. Greg Abbott a bill designed to make voting easier for thousands of Texans. Abbott praised that effort and ultimately signed the legislation that, in a rare moment of bipartisanship, both Democrats and Republicans supported.
Scheduled to take effect on Sept. 1, the law would overhaul balloting at nursing homes — an attempt to simultaneously remove opportunities to commit ballot fraud while expanding ballot access to nursing home residents.
But on Wednesday, the Texas House voted to repeal the new law, which some Republicans dubbed a well-intentioned mistake.
“It was an oversight that people missed,” said Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, who led the repeal effort.
Goldman’s maneuver came as the House took up a separate bill targeting mail-in voter fraud, one of 20 items on Gov. Greg Abbott’s special session call. That proposal, Senate Bill 5, would widen the definition of mail-in voter fraud and increase penalties for those who commit it.
On Wednesday, Goldman tacked on an amendment to repeal the nursing home law. House lawmakers approved the amendment in an 89-48 vote, before tentatively approving SB 5 by a 90-37 margin. That capped more than three hours of debate featuring emotional pushback from Democrats and some Republicans who supported the nursing home law during the regular session.
Rep. Tom Oliverson, a Cypress Republican who had championed the nursing home law, said he was confused about what triggered the push to destroy it, but he suspected that bipartisan buy-in may have played a role.
“It’s a sad commentary on politics in Texas,” he said in an interview. “People get nervous when they see the other side in favor of something, because they assume it gives them an advantage in elections.”
Oliverson said Gov. Greg Abbott’s office told him it supported the repeal of the nursing home law — even though Abbott signed it and in May touted on Twitter that “Texas has a bi-partisan effort targeting voter fraud at nursing homes.”
“Seniors' votes shouldn't be stolen,” that tweet said.
Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to The Texas Tribune’s request for comment.
The bill he was touting, House Bill 658, created a process for collecting absentee ballots at some 3,000 nursing homes and similar facilities statewide. It would essentially turn the homes into temporary polling places during early voting to discourage facility staffers, political operatives or others from trying to manipulate residents’ votes, a well-documented threat surrounding such vulnerable voters.
Under the law, which was based on a similar process in Wisconsin, judges would arrive at a nursing home with enough ballots so that any qualified voter there could fill one out. Folks who may have forgotten to request an absentee ballot could fill out the paperwork on site and cast a vote during the judges’ visit.
"What was unique about this bill that we’re now going to blow up and repeal,” Oliverson said on the House floor, “instead of punishing someone after they commit a crime, we’re going to take away their opportunity to commit it.”
For years, Texas has ranked near last nationally in voter turnout, and attempts to reverse that trend have been shredded in a political buzz saw. The Republican-dominated Legislature has instead focused on ID requirements and other restrictions at the polls. Such efforts, which Republicans claim were needed to prevent fraud, have irked Democrats and run afoul of federal voting rights laws by making it tougher for blacks and Latinos to vote, according to recent court rulings.
In enacting House Bill 658, lawmakers found a path to meet both parties’ goals, with little controversy.
In pitching the repeal, Goldman said he was inundated with letters from county election officials — the only folks who raised concerns during the regular session. They complained that that dispatching judges to nursing homes would exhaust their resources.
“That bill was flawed,” Goldman said. “It’s basically an unfunded mandate.”
Democrats sought to salvage the nursing home overhaul through several amendments that Goldman and other Republicans shot down.
“It’s still a good idea,” said Rep. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas. “Why don’t we keep a good idea law?
Assuming the House grants final approval to SB 5, the chamber will have to reconcile it with a version that already cleared the Senate, which would not repeal the nursing home law.
Both chambers' versions of SB 5 would widen the definition of mail-in ballot fraud, boost penalties for certain offenses, strengthen rules for signature verification and require election judges to notify voters when ballots are rejected. It would also limit who could assist mail-in voters.
The bill would create a state jail felony — carrying up to two years in jail — for anyone who provided false information on an application for a mail-in ballot; intentionally caused false information to be provided on a ballot application; or knowingly submitted or altered a ballot application without a voter’s knowledge. The bill would increase penalties for offenses involving voters older than 65.
Oliverson said he supported some of the provisions in SB 5, but suggested that repealing the nursing home provisions would only weaken efforts to prevent voter fraud and encourage elderly Texans to vote. If the repeal effort ultimately succeeds in the special session’s waning days, Oliverson said he’d try again in 2019.
“I haven’t given up on bipartisanship.”