House Backs Bill Limiting Mail-In Ballot Collection

House Republicans on Thursday struck back at Democrats who in 2011 alleged there wasn’t a need for a state voter ID law because most of the fraud at the ballot box occurs on mail-in ballots.

The lower chamber tentatively approved a measure that would make it a Class A misdemeanor for someone to collect and deposit 10 or more mail-in ballots from other voters during an election. It does not apply to the collection of ballots cast by military service members, their spouses or dependents.

Republicans said that the measure, House Bill 148 by state Rep. Cindy Burkett, R-Sunnyvale, would prevent crimes by eliminating “ballot harvesting,” which proponents of the bill say lead to voter fraud and possible voter intimidation. The bill also prohibits a courier who collects such mail-in ballots from receiving compensation. The measure, which was supported with an 86-41 vote Thursday, is still subject to final approval by the House.

The measure drew contentious debate after Democrats said the measure would create confusion about who is eligible to collect ballots and what argument those people could offer in their defense if they were charged. The bill exempts caretakers in state-licensed care facilities, state-certified facilities and those acting within the scope of their normal day-to-day duties.

Houston Democrats Gene Wu and Sylvester Turner said the measure would unfairly hamper a citizen’s ability to help another voter if he or she were acting in good faith. Turner said that it was unclear who qualifies as a caretaker and that the ambiguity would lead to court review.

“If this bill is misunderstood by this chamber, it is going to see a legal challenge,” Turner said.

Wu said the measure means that even a Boy Scout who attempted to earn a merit badge by assisting the elderly cast a ballot could face a harsh penalty. A Class A misdemeanor carries a penalty of up to a year in jail and up to a $4,000 fine.

“You are creating a law that makes good Samaritans criminals,” Wu said.

Burkett was steadfast in her defense that the measure was not intended to disenfranchise voters and said that the House Elections Committee and the Texas secretary of state’s office properly vetted the bill. She repeatedly reminded members that both Democrats and Republicans mentioned mail-in fraud as a major culprit.

“I heard that more than once on this floor,” she said. “I am trying to address an issue here that has been overall acknowledged” by both parties.

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, filed an amendment that would also exempt the disabled and senior citizens, saying that it was a fair tweak if military members are exempted. Like military members serving outside of where they live, Martinez Fisher said, the elderly or disabled are also limited in how, when and where they can travel to cast a ballot.

“Why can’t we provide an exemption? Why is 10 the magic number?” Martinez Fischer asked.

His amendment was tabled but not before he reminded members that state laws that affect elections must get precleared by the federal government. He read from a federal court’s 2012 decision in which it rejected the state’s request for preclearance of its voter ID law, which was passed in 2011 but not implemented due to the federal government’s actions.

If passed, Burkett’s bill would probably be subject to the same review if the U.S. Supreme Court upholds Section 5, which requires either a district court in Washington or the U.S. Department of Justice to approve laws that affect elections in states or territories with histories of racial discrimination.

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