Texas elections are flawed. From mail-in ballot fraud to noncitizens voting to the use of public resources subsidizing campaigns, Texas faces a wide range of issues undermining the integrity of our elections.
In the fall of 2018, four women were arrested and charged with operating an organized mail-in ballot fraud ring in Tarrant County. That same year, the conviction of Maria Ortega was upheld. Ortega was convicted of illegally voting after lying about being a citizen.
And in 2019, a school district employee was arrested after it was discovered she filled out multiple absentee ballots.
This session represented an opportunity to empower election administrators and citizens with the tools to stop or find and quickly prosecute wrongdoing in elections like those listed above.
Conservatives were optimistic at the onset of the session about potential action on election integrity following the work of a Senate Select Committee on Election Security during the interim and based on the composition of the House Election Committee.
The committee, comprised of five Republicans and four Democrats, included three of the most conservative members in the House and was chaired by State Rep. Stephanie Klick (R-Fort Worth), believed to be a well-informed member on election issues and an advocate for election integrity.
As anticipated, the Senate took election integrity seriously; the House, and specifically Representative Klick, did not. Legislation to substantively secure elections did not become law. Analyzing the marquee election integrity bill of the session, Senate Bill 9 by State Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineloa), is probably the best case in point.
Senate Bill 9 was an omnibus bill aimed at curtailing several deficiencies in election law including restrictions to curb illegal assistance, increases in both criminal and civil penalties for breaking election law, and provisions for automatic audits of elections, among others.
The bill passed the Senate without any ruckus but was noisily killed in the House without debate or a vote by the members. It’s important to note, debate and votes on bills were promised by the newly elected House leadership; but on important issues including election integrity, action on the House floor did not materialize.
Not only was SB 9 passed by the Senate, it was sent to the House with a month and a half to go in the session—plenty of time to move through the “legislative labyrinth.” However, upon its arrival, the bill languished for four weeks before receiving a hearing in the elections committee.
When SB 9 was finally heard in committee, it had been altered to drop paper ballot backup requirements in an effort to appease lobbyists and committee member Valoree Swanson (R-Spring). Despite this, the day after the hearing, Swanson ghosted a vote to advance the bill and was blamed by multiple media outlets for its death.
In truth, the bill was effectively dead by this point, killed by delay, killed by Klick. So, while a vote was eventually taken two days after the initial hearing, the bill was not placed on a calendar and then died. There’s ample evidence, based on Klick’s handling of other bills, to suggest that had SB 9 made it to conference committee it would have been killed or gutted further.
The failure to pass SB 9 was not an isolated incident of House violence on the advancement of election integrity measures.
The House Election Committee failed to take or timely move legislation addressing noncitizens registered to vote in Texas (SB 205, HB’s 4331, 4403, 4538, 4540), failed to advance legislation formalizing list maintenance (SB 903), failed to advance legislation outlawing the use of public funds for political advertising (SB 1569), and failed to outlaw the use of P.O. Boxes to register voters en masse (SB 1190).
As was the case with SB 9, legislation addressing all of these problems passed the Senate with ample time to be taken up and passed in the House. Yet, to reiterate, not only did these bills not move, they weren’t even given a chance to move, thus never making it to the floor for a vote.
Early in the session, election administrators called on lawmakers to act. Collin County Election Administrator Bruce Sherbet noted that fraud in elections is occurring and deterrence is needed. Texas needs to identify and make examples of the criminals illegally interfering in elections.
It’s impossible to review the legislative session as it pertains to election integrity and conclude anything other than Klick cutting off conservative reforms at the knees.
Over the course of the session, Klick insisted House bills lacking real teeth to deal with shortcomings in our election administration would be counteracted by stronger bills coming from the Senate. When those bills came over to the House, Klick killed them by 1) not giving them hearings, 2) giving them hearings too late for them to move, and 3) stripping useful language from the Senate that was amended to weak House bills.
It’s unacceptable that legislation crucial to the accurate administration of elections languished this session. Action in governing is transparency, which this session was short on when it came to election integrity.
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