One of Gov. Greg Abbott’s priority reforms for the special legislative session – cracking down on mail-in ballot fraud – sailed through a Texas Senate committee hearing on Sunday and is on its way to the full chamber for a vote.

Senate Bill 5 authored by State Sen. Kelly Hancock (R–Fort Worth) received unanimous approval from the Senate State Affairs Committee after an hour-long hearing, with almost all witnesses testifying in favor of the bill.

Hancock explained that SB 5 does not limit access to mail ballot voting or change who is eligible to vote by mail – primarily elderly and disabled voters. It does, he said, protect those vulnerable voters from having their votes stolen.

The bill’s main provisions 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.

SB 5 clarifies what constitutes illegal assistance and bans submitting mail ballot applications without the voter’s knowledge and approval. It also shores up rules and procedures for verifying mail ballot signatures.

“This bill is long overdue,” said Alan Vera, chairman of the Harris County Republican Party Ballot Security Committee, adding that it addresses many real problems in current election laws.

“We have a hard time persuading county District Attorneys to prosecute many violations of Texas Election Code because today so many of those violations are classified as misdemeanors—somehow below the threshold of interest of local DAs…

“So much election fraud in Texas is at the expense of the elderly. That’s unacceptable. This bill assigns stiffer penalties for those violations which make the elderly their victims. This bill addresses that real problem.”

“Violators of our election code – and those responsible for prosecuting these violators – will not take our election laws seriously until you show that you take them seriously,” Vera told the committee.

Nueces County Clerk Kara Sands agreed. As the county’s chief elections officer, she said illegal mail ballot harvesting is a big problem, especially in small local races and primaries. Sands said there’s an ongoing investigation by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office concerning mail ballot fraud in the county’s 2016 general election.

“We’re not talking about ‘friends and family’ helping voters out of the goodness of their hearts,” Sands told the panel. “These are criminals preying on voters.”

Aaron Harris of Direct Action Texas also testified that mail-in ballot fraud is a real problem in need of real solutions. His government accountability group has filed criminal election complaints in four Texas counties, all of which resulted in criminal investigations by Paxton’s office. Harris said the existing code is too weak, making it hard for prosecutors to secure criminal convictions and resulting in lenient plea bargains that keep convictions off the books and keep criminal violators on the streets.

“We need increased penalties,” said Harris. “Everyone should support making this behavior have real consequences.”

Nearly a dozen witnesses testified in favor of SB 5. Only three – representatives of the League of Women Voters, the ACLU, and the NAACP – spoke against the bill. All three told lawmakers they thought that increased penalties for stealing elderly voters’ ballots might discourage some people from voting or helping others to vote.

Hancock concluded that the right to vote is sacred and “any attempt to scam the system or steal another American’s vote must be addressed accordingly.” With passage of SB 5, the legislature can address the real and persistent problem of mail ballot voter fraud in Texas.

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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.