Limiting the assistance offered to voters, increasing penalties for illegal voting and tweaking laws governing the use of cellphones by poll watchers are included in Texas Republicans’ ongoing efforts to overhaul Texas’ voting system.
Fresh off its voter ID victory last month, the majority party in the House made good on its promise to go beyond that controversial measure to combat what it alleges is serious voter fraud. In what House Elections Committee Chairman Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, called “the Peña Network” the committee on Monday heard more than a half-dozen bills authored by Rep. Aaron Peña, R-Edinburg.
The measure that drew the most debate, House Bill 304, would limit how often an election worker would be allowed to assist voters to two per day. Peña said his constituents complain that workers, under the guise of offering assistance, actually coerce voters into casting ballots in a particular way.
“The largest growing voter fraud that I’ve seen in South Texas is voter assistance fraud,” he told the committee. Peña said the alleged corruption is a remnant of the patronismo, or “bossism,” way of doing things on the border where casting a ballot for the wrong person could mean the voter or voter’s relative loses a job or other benefits. Two of the largest employers in the district, he said, are school districts and local governments.
State Rep. Joe Farias, D-San Antonio, said he was concerned that bill would adversely affect families who are recently naturalized and need help understanding ballot language and other specifics. Peña conceded that Farias has a valid point and said he would alter the bill to provide an exemption, but with limits.
“We are going to create a family exemption for a nuclear family, not for the expanded family that includes every cousin known to mankind,” he said after the hearing.
Disability rights’ advocates have other concerns and questioned whether the bill would violate federal law. Jessica Gomez with Disability Rights Texas said the right to assistance is guaranteed under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which mandates that anyone with a disability, who is illiterate or who doesn’t speak English can receive assistance from a person of his or her choosing in casting an in-person ballot.
“There are many people with disabilities who may need to receive assistance from someone who has already assisted more than two voters that day. For instance, people who live in institutions may rely on care attendants or employees of that institution,” she said.
Peña said re-working that language, which he said he was open to, would be more difficult because retirement homes are where those attempting to sway an election focus their efforts.
“It’s a valid point if you’re in a licensed facility and you have a person that’s working there,” he said. “I will create an exemption.”
Gomez, a South Texas native, agreed that seniors or persons with disabilities could be preyed upon, but she said the focus should be on educating them about their rights, not a blanket policy with possible unintended consequences.
“We need the voter to stand up and say ‘This is my vote and you cannot influence it.’ That is our last line of defense,” she said.
Peña also laid out before the committee HB 2050, which would allow poll watchers to use cell phones at polling places. Peña said current law requires that poll watchers cannot leave the site until they have been there at least five hours. If watchers witness alleged voter fraud or intimidation, he said, they should be allowed to leave the premises to report it.
“If you make a phone call and say, ‘Hey Mr. Attorney General, they are doing this, this, this, and this,’ you can’t go back inside. This simply allows them to make that phone call,” he said. “It’s not for political reconnaissance, it’s for reporting illegal activity and so those [issues] simply need to be flushed out.”
Also in committee, state Rep. Jose Aliseda, R-Beeville, introduced HB 3498, which would increase the penalty for illegal voting from a third-degree felony to a second-degree felony, and increase the penalty for an attempt to commit voter fraud from a Class A misdemeanor to a state jail felony.
“I believe it sends a message to someone who is even contemplating some kind of election fraud,” Aliseda, a former prosecutor, told the committee. Democrats questioned what the cost to the state of these changes would be. Aliseda conceded a person convicted and receiving the maximum sentence could end up costing the state tens of thousands of dollars, but said first convictions would likely result in probation.
“I know where you are going with this,” he told Farias. “But just a conviction alone would send a message.”
The bills were left pending in committee.