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GOP Lawmakers Heading Into The Legislative Session Take Aim At Voter Fraud

Election workers prepare a drive-thru area for incoming election materials at NRG Arena in Houston.
Pu Ying Huang for The Texas Tribune
Harris County election workers run the drive-thru for incoming election materials at the NRG Arena in Houston. Representatives from more than 800 precincts drove to election headquarters to drop off their ballot data.

Nearly a dozen pieces of legislation, all of them filed by Republicans, target mail-in balloting, illegal voting and misbehaving elections officials — inspired by events and talking points from the previous election cycle.

Fresh off a presidential election replete with accusations of election malfeasance but devoid of evidence of widespread fraud in Texas, local Republican leaders say the state needs more laws to protect the integrity of the state’s elections.

To that end, GOP state lawmakers are heading into the next state legislative session with a fistful of anti-fraud bills aimed at an issue that experts — and even some conservatives — acknowledge isn’t much of a problem in the Lone Star State.

Nearly a dozen pieces of legislation, all of them filed by Republicans, take aim at mail-in balloting, illegal voting and misbehaving elections officials — inspired by events and talking points from the previous election cycle.

“Filing legislation that will prevent voter fraud ensures that we have fair elections,” said Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, a member of the House Elections Committee last session and author of several anti-fraud bills. “If people do not trust in the electoral process, they will not trust those who are elected.”

Texas Democrats, who are focusing their efforts on legislation to expand voter access, counter that the bills are being filed as a way to sow mistrust in the process or make it harder to register and vote.

“It’s disingenuous, it hurts the people of Texas, and it creates the spread of misinformation, which is exactly what they’re aiming to do,” said Abhi Rahman, spokesperson for the Texas Democratic Party. “Texas is already the hardest state in the country to vote in, and the fact is we should be making it easier, not harder.”

One bill in both the Texas House and Senate limits officials from giving mail-in ballot applications to voters who haven’t requested them, an apparent response to an attempt by former Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins, a Democrat, to send out applications to all of the nearly 2.5 million registered voters in the Houston area this summer.

Hollins’ plan, which county officials said was meant to educate and encourage voters who qualify for absentee voting, was shut down after courts agreed with Republicans who argued that it was confusing, illegal and promoted fraud.

Another proposal would curtail the governor’s powers to make election law without lawmaker approval during a state disaster declaration. Gov. Greg Abbott angered members of his own party ahead of the election when he expanded early voting by a week as a coronavirus safety precaution.

That bill’s author, Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, also filed legislation that would prompt the purge of voters with outdated addresses from county rolls. He said his priority is making sure the election system works as it should.

“I’m very cautious of protecting and making sure the system has integrity,” said Springer, who is facing Dallas salon owner Shelley Luther in a runoff for the state Senate this month. “My first and foremost concern is not the ease of doing it, but it’s the integrity of the system.”

The bills echo much of the national Republican-led conversation about the November election, in which President Donald Trump was defeated but refuses to concede as he claims massive voter fraud, without evidence.

Many Texas GOP politicians joined in the attempt to cast doubt on the integrity of elections, launching the idea of fraud in the presidential election — which national security officials have said was “the most secure in American history” — into the local debate over voting.

Over the summer, as Texas was gearing up for an unprecedented election season amid countless lawsuits over voting during the pandemic, the Texas GOP passed a platform that included staunch opposition to the expansion of voter registration and proposed further limits on the process as a way of “restoring integrity to the voter registration rolls and reducing voter fraud.”

“It’s high on everybody’s minds right now, with the problems we’re seeing going on with elections across the nation,” Springer said.

Springer’s opponent expressed similar views.

“First we need to get to the bottom of the fraudulent votes cast in this election,” Luther said in an email to the Tribune. “Then we need to pass additional voter integrity legislation that politicians in both parties have failed to pass.”

Texas just went through a historic election in a pandemic with few reported problems, illustrating that the “elections in Texas are very sound” and that the instances of fraud that occur don’t usually affect election results, said Justin Till, chief of staff and general counsel for Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, who authored a bill increasing penalties for election officials who violate the election code.

The bill raises the penalty for intentional fraud by election workers from a state jail felony to a second-degree felony with a minimum of one year in jail, similar to the penalties for some citizens convicted of voting illegally. The bill also raises the penalty for false reports of voter fraud to the same level.

Bonnen’s office, like several around the state, heard from fearful constituents concerned about accusations of fraud in other states and began to look for ways to improve a system that already works well, Till said.

“Our belief that our system works properly is very strong, but giving people a sense of relief and of course the penalties [for election fraud by workers] … is just a commonsense approach we think will be useful,” Till said of the bill. “We’ll continue to monitor it, and if the situation somehow changes — and I cannot image that it will — then we’ll address it.”

In Texas, where Republicans had a strong Election Day and Trump won by 600,000 votes out of 11.2 million ballots cast, widespread evidence of voter fraud has not surfaced.

As of election week, the Texas attorney general’s office had closed cases on just over 150 defendants prosecuted for election offenses since 2004, according to the attorney general’s office. That’s out of nearly 90 million ballots cast in Texas in statewide primary and general elections since 2004 — a figure that does not include special elections, constitutional elections, runoffs and local elections.

Till acknowledged that some local elections with narrow vote margins may be vulnerable to voter fraud, but by and large, results are usually not changed.

“If it does happen or is attempted, the number of checks and balances throughout the entire process tends to ferret out those nefarious actors and prevent those votes from being counted,” Till said. “So it’s not a widespread, results-dispositive issue, at least in Texas.”

But Republicans like Cain, whose bills include measures to purge noncitizens from the rolls and strengthen voter ID laws, say the measures are necessary to maintain trust in the system and make sure legal votes are counted.

“These bills will continue to ensure the integrity of our elections,” Cain said. “The citizen’s right to vote is the most fundamental feature of a representative democracy. Thus, the integrity of the electoral process is paramount.”

The Texas Tribune provided this story.

Karen Brooks Harper | The Texas Tribune