Texas Democrats are concerned a provision in a bill cracking down on voter fraud would make it illegal for family members to discuss politics at home if a family member has a mail-in ballot in the house.
Democrats voiced their concerns as the Texas Senate considered a bill to increase penalties for mail-in ballot voter fraud. The bill passed the Texas Senate 21-10 on Wednesday, mostly along party lines. It now heads to the Texas House for consideration. The Texas legislature is currently in a special session.
Some Democrats said they could have supported the bill had it not been for a section making it a crime to “influence the independent exercise of the vote of another in the presence of the ballot or during the voting process.” The act would carry a punishment of up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine.
The penalty also increases if the voter being influenced is 65 or older, or if the person influencing the voter has committed a similar crime in the past. In Texas, voters can request a mail-in ballot if they are going to be out of the county during an election period, are disabled, are in jail (but eligible to vote) or if they are 65 or older.
Democrats said they were baffled as to why other portions of the bill had exceptions for family members, but not this one.
State Sen. Royce West (D) said he would’ve supported the bill if the provision had been eliminated.
“The reality is, family members end up getting mail-in ballots and they’re sitting around the table, and they could be talking about whether or not they’re going to vote for Royce West, and the person is saying, ‘I’m gonna vote for Royce West.’ Is that trying to influence that person? Is that assisting that person?” West asked.
“We tried to fix the issue of voting fraud, but you then turn around and put the provision in there like that that has no practical application to reality,” West told HuffPost.
A spokeswoman for state Sen. Kelly Hancock (R), the bill’s sponsor, didn’t return a request for comment. Hancock told the Texas Tribune that family members were unlikely to bring forward allegations of voter fraud against other family members.
“In this particular section, once you have your ballot, you’re treated as any other citizen who has a ballot,” he said. “When we’re dealing with the disabled, when we’re dealing with the elderly, I think they deserve the same privacy and protection as every other voter.”
But state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, another Democrat, said the unlikelihood of a prosecution didn’t explain why the provision should be in the bill.
“Most prosecutors probably would not prosecute such a case, but an overzealous prosecutor might, just as an unhappy relative might seek to press charges,” she said in a statement. “What’s more, the broad language could create a chilling effect on political discourse among family members or discourage a voter who needs help from asking for or receiving it from a friend or family member.”
Zaffirini also noted that she had unsuccessfully offered an amendment clarifying that the act would have to be “intended to overcome the free will or judgment of the voter” to be a crime.
Hancock has conceded there could be changes to the legislation in the House.
The Texas legislation comes as Dallas officials investigate a potential case of voter fraud. Election officials have sequestered 700 ballots from the city’s municipal election in May that they believe are linked to a fake name. Officials have also arrested a man they say collected a woman’s blank ballot, filled it out, forged her signature, and mailed it in.
Ahead of the Texas Senate’s vote on the bill, West reportedly read an email from a prosecutor in the Dallas County District Attorney’s office saying the provision was too broad and could be abused.
Proponents of the bill argue that tougher penalties will help deter voter fraud. But some say the changes won’t make a difference because the average person doesn’t know what the different penalties are anyway.
West told HuffPost that even Republicans expressed concern about the provision that potentially criminalizes discussions between family members.
“After the discussion, several Republicans came to me and thought that we should be able to fix this,” West said. “Given several Republicans came up to me, hopefully it will be fixed. I’m gonna work on it in the House to get it fixed, but hell, my work is not done.”