House Approves Changes to Ballot Harvesting Bill

Paper-ballot boxes flood Reliant Center, where Harris County officials convened to count thousands of paper ballots.
Paper-ballot boxes flood Reliant Center, where Harris County officials convened to count thousands of paper ballots.

The final version of a controversial bill filed to prevent so-called ballot harvesting was approved by the House, but not before a key provision was diluted in the Senate.

House Bill 148, by state Rep. Cindy Burkett, R-Sunnyvale, was signed by the House on Friday. It makes it a crime to offer a person compensation based on the number of mail-in ballots he or she collects during an election. Proponents of the bill say the practice leads to voter fraud and possible voter intimidation.

Under the measure, a person also commits an offense if he or she knowingly accepts compensation — including money, goods or other services — for collecting and mailing the ballots. The crime would be a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $4,000 fine and up to a year in jail. Repeat offenders could be charged with a state jail felony, which carries a maximum fine of $10,000 and a prison sentence of up to two years. The bill does not apply to people who gathered ballots while doing campaign work such as block walking, provided their payment is not tied to whether or not they collect mail-in ballots.

The bill initially made it a crime for a person to collect more than 10 mail-in ballots, regardless of whether compensation was offered. House Democrats said that provision could make even Good Samaritans criminals if they, with only good intentions, collected ballots from neighborhoods or senior living centers and mailed them.

The 10-ballot provision was stripped in the Senate, however, and the final version of the bill should be on its way to the governor.

Burkett and state Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, the chairwoman of the House Elections Committee, said the issue addresses a problem even Democrats say needs to be fixed. During the debate on voter ID two years ago, Democrats who fought the photo requirement said the Legislature should instead focus on mail-in ballot fraud.

The measure could possibly be subject to federal review if the U.S. Supreme Court decides next month to uphold Section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act.  The provision 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. Texas is one of nine states entirely covered by Section 5, which was renewed in 2006 under President George W. Bush, and will remain in place until 2031 unless the courts strike it down. The state’s voter ID law, passed last session, has yet to go into effect after the federal government determined the bill would have a discriminatory effect on eligible voters in Texas.

Despite the upcoming decision, Morrison said the Elections Committee proceeded this session at a normal pace. The committee voted out 76 bills, a third of which were filed by Democrats. Morrison said the breakdown mirrors the partisan make-up of the lower chamber.

 

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