Texas House lawmakers are slowly moving toward passing mail-in ballot reforms to crack down on voter fraud. The Senate passed its version of the long-overdue legislation last week.

House Bill 184 by State Rep. Craig Goldman (R-Fort Worth), which aims to deter and prevent mail-in ballot fraud – especially by organized mail ballot harvesters – got a public hearing in the House Elections Committee on Friday.

The proposed legislation would increase the penalties for illegally assisting with or handling mail-in ballots or applications – with stiffer penalties if the victim is 65 years or older or the perpetrator has committed other election offenses. Making mail ballot violations Class A misdemeanors or state jail felonies not only serves as a stronger deterrent but makes prosecution of election crimes a higher priority.

HB 184 also clarifies what constitutes illegal assistance, bans submitting mail ballot applications without the voter’s knowledge and approval, and shores up rules and procedures for verifying mail ballot signatures.

Gov. Greg Abbott called on lawmakers to pass legislation during this special session that enhances “the detection, prosecution, and elimination of mail-in ballot fraud,” in response to Texas voters’ valid concerns about this very real problem. Active investigations of mail ballot voter fraud and illegal vote harvesting are ongoing in Dallas, Tarrant, and Nueces counties.

Companion legislation, Senate Bill 5, passed the Texas Senate last week after sailing through a committee hearing.

As on the Senate side, nearly all the House committee witnesses – 11 of 13 – spoke in favor of the legislation.

Nueces County Clerk Kara Sands said HB 184 is about protecting voters from harvesters. Voters are scared to say anything, she said, because “they’ve spoken out before and nothing happened.” Sands also pointed out that, “If you have a DA that benefitted from vote harvesters, they’re not going to go after voter fraud.”

Erin Swanson, a former prosecutor who now works for Harris County’s chief election official, told lawmakers that the bill’s enhanced penalties would make voter fraud cases a higher priority for busy prosecutors, and also keep election crimes from being pleaded down to minor infractions with minimal penalties. Swanson noted that even in two recent voter fraud convictions with witnesses and confessions, the cheaters only spent one day in jail.

Aaron Harris of Direct Action Texas agreed that the enhanced penalties are needed. Harris’ political fraud-busting organization has provided evidence to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office that has resulted in multiple criminal investigations into mail ballot fraud.

He said prosecutors have told him repeatedly that the existing code is too weak, making it hard to secure criminal convictions or impose meaningful punishments. Many election violations are simple misdemeanors that get pleaded down to deferred adjudication – which results in no record of voter fraud convictions. “Everyone should support making this behavior have real consequences,” Harris told the committee.

The bill’s language allowing election officials to look at multiple records when matching ballot signatures drew the attention of government watchdog and blogger Colleen Vera. She said officials need to verify that ballot applications and ballots are signed not just by “the same person” but by the actual voter. As Texas Scorecard has reported previously, if the same person forges signatures on both an application and a ballot, then the signatures will match – even though both are fraudulent.

Texas Democrat Party representative Glen Maxey, who testified on the bill, said he had concerns that “just raising the penalties is not the solution to solving voter fraud.” Maxey suggested that giving voters pre-paid envelopes for returning mail ballots could prevent fraud by bypassing harvesters. But Dallas County already gives voters pre-paid return envelopes and that hasn’t stopped vote harvesting activity there.

Even the lone witness against the bill acknowledged there’s “no argument” that mail ballot fraud is a problem, but said the NAACP has concerns about “unintended consequences” of enhanced penalties.

The Elections Committee met again Monday afternoon but failed to take action on HB 184 at that time; SB 5 was referred to that House committee Tuesday morning. Minor differences between the House and Senate bills will have to be resolved before both chambers pass a final version of this long-overdue legislation.

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Erin Anderson

Erin Anderson is a Senior Journalist for Texas Scorecard, reporting on state and local issues, events, and government actions that impact people in communities throughout Texas and the DFW Metroplex. A native Texan, Erin grew up in the Houston area and now lives in Collin County.