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Voters Who Make Mistakes Could Wind Up In Jail Under Sweeping Voting Bill, Advocates Say

Gabriel C. Pérez

A wide-ranging voting bill in the Texas Senate “would sharply escalate an ongoing campaign of voter suppression” in the state, voting rights advocates say.

In a letter sent today to the bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Bryan Hughes of Mineola, advocates said  Senate Bill 9 would make “voting substantially harder for thousands of Texans … by spreading fear that people may be thrown in jail for honest mistakes while trying to vote.”

SB 9 is one of 30 "priority bills" Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick flagged for the 2019 legislative session.

James Slattery, a senior staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said the bill “increases the stakes for even honest mistakes.”

“We are coming out of this last election where we had increased voter turnout, we had more people wanting to vote and participate in Democracy than ever,” he said, “and then you have this bill that at almost every turn instead of making it easier for those people to vote, [it] makes it harder.”

If passed, SB 9 would increase criminal penalties for anyone who makes an error on a voter registration form. Currently, providing false information on an application is a Class B misdemeanor. Under the bill, it would become “a state jail felony.”

“One of the really sinister provisions of this bill is that it effectively eliminates that intent requirement for a number of election-related offenses,” Slattery said.

If someone who didn't know they couldn't vote tried to vote they would be subject to prosecution; it wouldn’t matter whether the ballot was counted.

Slattery said that means there could be more cases like that of Crystal Mason, a convicted felon from Fort Worth who was sent to prison last year for voter fraud. In Texas, felons can't vote until they finish their sentences.

Mason had been let out under a “supervised release program” to complete a five-year sentence for tax fraud. She has said she thought she had her freedom back, so she went to vote in the 2016 election at the urging of her family.

Because she wasn’t on the state’s voter rolls, she was told to fill out a “provisional ballot.” It was never counted.

Mason was ensnared  in a statewide crackdown on alleged voter fraud carried out by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. She was sent back to prison even though she never technically voted and said she simply didn’t know she couldn’t.

SB 9 “could expose thousands more Texans to prosecution” in situations like this, Slattery said.

If passed, this part of the bill could also violate federal voting protections – specifically the Help America Vote Act.

“The federal government created the provisional ballot process in order for people who believe in good faith that they are eligible to vote to be able to cast a ballot that can be held in reserve until the voter’s eligibility is examined,” Slattery said.

He said he's also concerned about another part of the bill that would give law enforcement officials immunity when they're investigating election-related crimes.

Law enforcement “would be able to conduct essentially undercover sting operations of civic engagement groups or political parties," he said.

Cinde Weatherby with the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Texas said SB 9 does tackle election security issues, which she said is a step in the right direction. Among other things, it requires that electronic voting machines create a voter-verifiable paper trail.

“Unfortunately, there are a lot of other things that seem to be attacks on our civil liberties,” she said.

Weatherby said she is most concerned about a provision that would allow Texas to share Social Security numbers and dates of birth in voter rolls with other states. She said that's a privacy issue.

“The protection of the voting rolls is something that is really important to us,” she said.

Weatherby said the bill would affect voters who simply don't know the law. Every eligible voter should be encouraged to vote, she said; there shouldn’t be any “fearmongering” around it.

She said it's likely people make mistakes or are “trying to go around the system,” but “it’s not a huge majority.”

“[Lawmakers] are dealing with something that might need a small hammer with a sledgehammer,” she said.

Copyright 2020 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Ashley Lopez joined KUT in January 2016. She covers politics and health care, and is part of the NPR-Kaiser Health News reporting collaborative. Previously she worked as a reporter at public radio stations in Louisville, Ky.; Miami and Fort Myers, Fla., where she won a National Edward R. Murrow Award.