Two bills filed in the Texas House of Representatives seek to expand the powers of the Texas Attorney General to prosecute election-related crimes. One allows the prosecutor’s office to appoint special prosecutors for such cases, and the other empowers the prosecutor’s office to punish local prosecutors who “restrict the enforcement of electoral laws.”
While no evidence of widespread election fraud has been found, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has been actively investigating election-related crimes since taking office in 2015. In at least the past two years, his office has opened more than 300 investigations into potential crimes by voters and election officials, but has successfully convicted only a handful.
Voting rights experts and advocates say the bills will continue to give government officials the power to scrutinize election organizers, foment new lawsuits and intimidate voters.
In September, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled in Texas v. Zena Stevens that Paxton did not have unilateral powers to prosecute election-related crimes. Instead, the Texas Constitution grants such powers to local prosecutors, such as district attorneys and district attorneys.
Shortly after the ruling, Paxton publicly urged the Legislature to “correct this mistake.” In a tweet, Paxton wrote, “The CCA’s shameful decision means local district attorneys with radically liberal views have the sole power to prosecute Texas election fraud, which they will never do.”
Experts say the two bills, filed by North Texas Republican lawmakers, are a “direct reaction” and a “detour” to the court ruling.
Paxton’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
House Bill 678, introduced by Rep. Keith Bell, R-Forney, would allow the attorney general to appoint a district attorney or district attorney from a neighboring county as a special prosecutor in an alleged election crime case. The bill also requires local prosecutors to notify the attorney general’s office of an open investigation into election law violations, rather than the secretary of state’s office.
House Bill 125, introduced by Rep. Brian Slaton, R-Royse City, would limit the local attorney’s discretion and allow the attorney general to seek an injunction to prevent the local attorney from “restricting the enforcement of election laws.”
Austin lawyer Chad Dunn, who has represented clients including Stevens who were prosecuted by prosecutors, said bills filed to expand the attorney general’s powers to prosecute election-related crimes are “unconstitutional.” Dunn said if lawmakers want to expand the Attorney General’s ability to prosecute election-related crimes, they need a constitutional amendment that must be decided by Texas voters.
“It’s amazing to see how Republican officials are trying to micromanage community decisions,” Dunn said. “Prosecutors have every right to determine who they want to investigate and prosecute. and Stevens’ solution makes this clear. There’s just no legal bypass. [of] court ruling”.
Bell and Slayton did not immediately return calls and emails asking for comment.
Slaton’s bill is likely to allow Paxton to intervene when local prosecutors decide not to prosecute election-related violations, said Daniel Griffith, senior political director at Secure Democracy USA. This is the same power that the courts have ruled that Paxton did not have, favoring the power of local officials to prosecute cases.
“[Lawmakers] are going to use every possible mechanism to give the Attorney General such powers,” Griffith said. “This will continue to sow mistrust because we know government officials are looking at the election administration from a criminal investigation point of view.”
Anthony Gutierrez, chief executive of Common Cause Texas, said the bills would also discourage the hiring of election officials.
“The possibility of being prosecuted if you screw up something that Ken Paxton just decided was not a mistake, but a violation of the law, will dissuade the voters, as well as the people who have the right to do so. [election administration] jobs from the desire to do these jobs,” he said.