When Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced his priorities for the special legislative session that started Tuesday, he included “cracking down on mail-in ballot fraud” among them. Texans are understandably concerned about this type of voter fraud as multiple criminal investigations of fraudulent mail ballot activity are currently ongoing across the state.

Abbott’s draft Supplemental Call for the special session – items to be considered once the Senate delivers on a must-pass “sunset” bill to keep state agencies open – lists legislation “enhancing the detection, prosecution, and elimination of mail-in ballot fraud.”

Two Fort Worth Republicans, State Sen. Kelly Hancock and State Rep. Craig Goldman, were tapped by the governor to take the lead on this priority, as it’s a problem that hits close to home.

What’s thought to be the largest voter fraud investigation in Texas history, involving as many as 20,000 mail ballots, is ongoing in Tarrant County. In neighboring Dallas County, prosecutors just indicted their first suspect in a mail ballot harvesting scheme targeting hundreds of elderly voters in West Dallas. Dallas County’s District Attorney and the Texas Attorney General’s office are working together on that criminal investigation.

On Monday, the two legislators filed identical bills that aim to prevent mail ballot voter fraud and increase the criminal penalties for people who use mail ballots to steal votes.

Senate Bill 5, and its companion House Bill 184, increase the penalties for a number of voting violations to Class A misdemeanors or state jail felonies – changes prosecutors say not only serve as stronger deterrents but make going after election crimes a higher priority.

The bills also add the offense of election fraud to the Texas Election Code. Infractions are a Class A misdemeanor, elevated to a state jail felony if the victim is 65 years or older or the perpetrator has committed other election offenses. During this year’s regular session, the legislature created the statutory offense of organized election fraud, increasing penalties for violations committed while participating in an organized vote harvesting operation.

SB 5 and HB 184 also shore up rules and procedures for mail ballots, including a stronger signature verification process. Unlike in-person voters, mail ballot voters aren’t required to provide any form of identification other than their signature on the ballot, which is currently matched to their ballot application. But if both the application and the ballot are forged by the same person, the signatures will match even though both are fraudulent.

Democrat operatives recently revealed how easy it is to steal mail ballot votes in Dallas County and described how vote harvesting schemes target elderly voters.

There is bipartisan recognition that mail-in ballots are the most susceptible to fraud, and that fraud is taking place – and possibly affecting the outcomes of close Texas elections.

After reports in June that not only were hundreds of possibly-fraudulent mail ballots cast in Dallas County’s May city elections, but ballots were requested in the names of dead voters still on the county’s voter rolls, State Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) acknowledged:

“I believe there are ballots that probably get taken out of mailboxes before a senior even knows it’s arrived. I believe there are people who will go and take a senior’s ballot and help them fill it out and by helping them, I mean telling them what to do or unduly influencing them in how they vote. I believe there are people who will let them vote of their freewill, but if they don’t like the result, [they] will actually discard the ballot. I think all those things happen.”

By passing meaningful mail ballot reforms in this special session, the legislature can help ensure that all those things don’t continue to happen.

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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.