The upcoming Texas Legislative Session will begin on January 10, and electoral legislation will be of great importance. The Voting Rights Lab, a non-partisan voting rights organization that tracks electoral politics, said a total of 75 bills have already been submitted for the upcoming session.
Establishment of an Electoral Marshal
Both SB 220 and HB 549 deal with the appointment of state bailiffs to investigate potential voting irregularities.
Last November, on Election Day, Harris County faced a number of problems, including a shortage of ballots, long lines and malfunctioning voting machines. Texas Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) wrote this bill to appoint an election leader to prevent similar incidents in the future.
“We need to be able to not only check for problems, but also try to prevent them,” Betancourt said.
“The bottom line is that the election marshal allows the secretary of state to send someone to prevent a problem from arising, instead of starting a lawsuit,” he continued.
Some draw comparisons between SB 220 and the recent law in Florida that created the Electoral Police. Betancourt acknowledged the similarities between the bills, but stated that the one he wrote would be more effective in reducing electoral failures.
“We have lost the ability to see the obvious in this heated debate about electoral politics in the country. We must remember that much remains to be done. You still need to have the hardware. You need election judges. You must have ballots and everything must work in accordance with the laws of the state in which you are located. And in fact, this work helps people recognize the obvious,” he continued.
Online voter registration
Several pre-filed bills (SB 92, HB 1145, HB 1070, HB 675) will allow eligible voters to register online.
“(Online voter registration) has been implemented in 40 states with great results,” said Veronica Worms, legal counsel for the Texas Civil Rights Project.
Currently, eligible voters in Texas must print the form, complete it, and mail it to their respective county’s Election Office. A completed voter registration form must be received by the office 30 days before the election.
“People do everything online,” says Liz Avore, senior policy adviser at the Voting Rights Lab. “Registering to vote would be a lot easier if you could do it from your computer… It expands access to our democracy for people who have the right to vote.”
Increasing the penalty for voting in case of incompetence
Currently, if someone who does not have the right to vote votes, they can be charged with a misdemeanor. If SB 166, tentatively filed by Texas Senator Brian Hughes (R-Mineola), passes, the sentence will be upgraded to a felony in the second degree.
Several similar bills filed by Texas representatives, including HB 52, HB 222, and HB 397, deal with tougher penalties for illegal voting.
Expanding the Attorney General’s Powers to Prosecute Electoral Crimes
HB 125, tentatively filed by Texas Rep. Brian Slaton (R-Royse City), would allow the Attorney General to impose fines of up to $25,500 on local officials if they fail to enforce any election laws, including prosecution for fraud at elections.
There is also HB 678, filed by Texas Rep. Keith Bell (R-Forney), which allows the attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate cases of electoral fraud.
“(There are) bills to expand the Attorney General’s powers to prosecute election-related crimes in the state,” Avore said.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton moved to unilaterally gain powers to prosecute election-related crimes, saying local officials are not doing enough to stop election fraud. According to a Texas Tribune report, in September the Court of Criminal Appeals upheld a ruling that said the attorney general must obtain permission from local prosecutors to investigate election-related crimes, such as election fraud.
“Now we are seeing legislation that is really kind of designed to test the limits of this ruling. And see how far the Attorney General’s powers can go in relation to election-related crimes,” Avore said.
Accommodation for voters with disabilities
HB 296, tentatively filed by John Busey (D-Austin), will make voting more accessible to people with disabilities.
This bill adds to the legislation by requiring polling places to have two parking spaces for people with disabilities, accessible entrances, and increased access to mail-in ballots.