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Abbott Wants Stiffer Penalties On Illegal Voting. He Has Opposition Within His Own Party.

Photo compilation that featured Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on one side, pointing an an unknown object, and Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan on the other side, standing at a podium while talking to someone.
Eric Gay
Associated Press
Gov. Greg Abbot, left, and Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan are at odds over illegal voting penalties.

Abbott added increased penalties for illegal voting to the third special legislative session, but GOP House Speaker Dade Phelan said he won’t act on it.

Gov. Greg Abbott is looking to increase penalties on illegal voting, following recently passed voting restrictions that critics have called an attempt at voter suppression in Texas.

But the proposal is running into opposition from within the governor's own party.

Abbott notified the Texas Senate and House late Thursday that he was adding increased penalties for illegal voting to the call for the state's third special legislative session, with the aim of restoring language in Senate Bill 1 that would have levied harsher punishments.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick tweeted that the Senate would pass it next week.

But House Speaker Dade Phelan balked, sending out a tweet hailing SB 1 for making Texas elections more secure, and noting that the bill as amended passed the Senate after what he called a thorough review. Phelan concluded that the House had more important uses for its time than to revisit the law.

"Now is not the time to re-litigate,” Phelan wrote. “Instead, the House will remain focused on its constitutional obligation to pass redistricting maps, and members look forward to fulfilling this critical task.”

Abbott’s office did not return a request for comment Friday.

SB 1 originally included a section that would have made illegal voting a second-degree felony. However, in one of the late conference committee meetings, such an offense was downgraded to a Class-A misdemeanor.

It was then sent to the Senate, where it passed.

“This happened apparently under the radar," said Renée Cross, senior director of the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston. “Because now Gov. Abbott, as well as Lt. Governor Patrick, are saying that was not meant to happen.”

Redistricting is the main task of the third special session, along with the allocation of federal COVID relief funding.

Abbott has previously expressed a willingness to repeatedly set new special sessions in order to pass his preferred legislation. The voting bill was derailed at the end of the regular legislative session, and then again in the first special session, when Democrats in the state House of Representatives broke the quorum needed for a vote.

But Abbott again put the controversial bill on his second called special session, and when Democrats ultimately returned, the legislation passed easily in the GOP controlled Legislature, albeit with less strict criminal penalties.

Abbott has already expressed willingness to call a fourth special session if redistricting isn’t completed in time, making it possible that a bill on voting penalties will be considered again.

The state's Republican Party weighed in on the governor's side, with a statement from state party chairman Matt Rinaldi calling the removal of stiffer penalties an error.

“Speaker Phelan has indicated he will block any attempt to fix SB 1,” Rinaldi said. “We therefore ask Governor Abbott to keep calling Special Sessions until the Speaker allows the House to fix this error.”