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Long-overdue legislation strengthening penalties for mail-ballot voter fraud has passed the Texas Legislature and been signed into law.

Senate Bill 5 increases the penalties for illegally assisting with or handling mail-in ballots or applications – up to Class A misdemeanors or state jail felonies. SB 5 also clarifies what constitutes illegal assistance, bans submitting mail ballot applications without voters’ knowledge and approval, and shores up rules for verifying mail ballot signatures.

Gov. Greg Abbott released a statement after signing the election integrity bill on Friday:

“It is a primary function of government to protect a citizen’s right to vote, and I will not allow the integrity of the ballot box to be compromised in Texas.

 

“As Attorney General, I prosecuted countless cases of mail-in ballot fraud, and yet this problem continues to persist. Thanks to the efforts of the legislature and authors Sen. Kelly Hancock and Rep. Craig Goldman, Texas has strengthened penalties against those that commit mail-in ballot fraud.”

The current penalties – mostly low-level misdemeanors – were part of a 2003 bill to stop mail-ballot voter fraud that was crafted by then-State Rep. Steve Wolens, a Dallas Democrat, along with Dallas County’s elections administrator at the time, Bruce Sherbet, and assistant district attorney Ben Stool.

“It put regulations in place where there were none,” said Sherbet, now Collin County’s elections administrator.

But the weak penalties behind those regulations proved inadequate in deterring mail ballot harvesters from preying on the elderly to steal their votes – through deception and coercion, or forgery, or both. In just the past year, illegal ballot harvesting operations have sparked criminal voter fraud investigations that are ongoing in Dallas, Tarrant, and Nueces counties.

The Dallas County case, involving hundreds of suspicious mail ballots in May’s low-turnout local races, is a textbook example of the type of organized vote harvesting operations that have gone on for decades in Dallas.

Prompted by those cases and by conservative Texans concerned about election integrity, Abbott tasked lawmakers with enhancing both the mail ballot process and the penalties for cheaters during the special legislative session.

In doing so, though, the legislature also repealed part of a bill passed during the regular session that addressed mail-in ballot fraud in nursing homes, after some elections administrators raised questions about how the law would be implemented.

The stronger mail ballot regulations – and the stiffer consequences for violating them – go into effect December 1.

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