*Correction appended

A Texas Senate panel approved a measure Sunday aiming to crack down on mail-in ballot fraud — largely through increased penalties. 

“Mail-ballot voting is a prime target for illegal voting and election fraud,” said Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, who authored the measure, Senate Bill 5. “In the U.S., the right to vote is sacred. Any attempt to steal an American's vote … must be addressed.”

In a 9-0 vote, the Senate Committee on State Affairs sent the bill to the full chamber. The mail-in voting issue was among the items Gov. Greg Abbott placed on his call for the special legislative session that kicked off last week.

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The focus on absentee balloting puts the Republican-dominated legislature on a new path for changing the voting process by addressing a documented vulnerability in Texas elections. Previously, lawmakers targeted rare in-person election fraud with voter ID legislation eventually blocked by federal courts.

State law allows Texans with disabilities, those who are at least 65 years old or those who plan to be out of their home county during voting to request a mail-in ballot, and that process falls outside of voter ID requirements.  

Saturday's legislative movement on the matter comes amid an investigation of mail-in ballot irregularities affecting city council races in Dallas, where 700 suspicious ballots were sequestered after the county’s district attorney received an “off-the-charts” number of complaints from voters, according to news reports. Many people — especially in West Dallas — said they received mail-in ballots they didn’t request and feared that someone else voted in their place. Earlier this month, a grand jury indicted a man for allegedly taking a Dallas woman’s blank mail-in ballot, filling in a candidate’s name, and delivering it to the county’s election department. 

Hancock’s bill would widen the definition of mail-in ballot fraud, boost penalties for certain offenses, strengthen rules for signature verification and require election judges to notify voters when ballots are rejected. It would also limit who could assist mail-in voters.

The bill’s proponents — including representatives with the state Republican Party and Texas Association of Election Administrators — said it would protect the votes of elderly and disabled Texans who are most likely to be targeted by those who abuse the mail-in balloting system. County prosecutors rarely spend much energy prosecuting mail-in balloting fraud, they said, because the current penalties are too soft.

“This bill is long overdue,” said Alan Vera, who chairs the Harris County GOP’s Ballot Security Committee, adding that the proposal “puts some badly needed teeth into election law enforcement.”

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The bill would create a state jail felony — carrying up to two years in prison — for those who provide false information on an application for a mail-in ballot; intentionally causes false information to be provided on a ballot application; or knowingly submits or alters a ballot application without a voter’s knowledge. The bill would further bump up penalties for offenses involving voters older than 65. 

Also under the bill, those found to be carrying a ballot without a voter’s authorization could be charged with a third degree felony, carrying penalties of two to 10 years in prison.

Critics called some of the penalties too harsh, and suggested there were more effective ways to prevent fraud.

“The bill’s penalty enhancements are extreme,” said Matthew Simpson, deputy political director for the ACLU of Texas.  “Someone could fail to sign an envelope and find themselves facing a penalty of 2-10 years in jail.”

Cinde Weatherby, with the Texas League of Women Voters, said the enhanced penalties could discourage elderly Texans and those with disabilities from voting by mail.

Some who testified Sunday pointed out that lawmakers already took a step this year to prevent one type of absentee ballot fraud.

Last month, Abbott signed into law a bipartisan bill aiming to simultaneously curb voter fraud at nursing homes and widen ballot access to elderly Texans who live in them. It created a process for collecting absentee ballots at nursing homes and similar facilities — turning them into temporary polling places during early voting to discourage facility staffers, political operatives or others from trying to manipulate residents’ votes.

Texas lawmakers have been slow to beef up protections against mail-in ballot fraud, despite vowing for years to protect the integrity of elections.

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Lawmakers six years ago passed the nation’s strictest voter photo identification law, a politically contentious measure that, experts and federal judges say, disproportionately made it tougher for Latino and black Texans to vote. The state has spent millions of dollars defending that law and has yet to win a round in federal court. As legal appeals continue, lawmakers this year passed a bill to soften the requirements — by making permanent a court-ordered fix for the 2016 elections.

The 2011 voter ID legislation was part of a trend in Republican-led statehouses across the country that proponents said would reduce voter fraud. But the law only applied to ballots cast in-person, where experts have found scant evidence of widespread trouble. 

“The bill did nothing to address mail-in balloting, which is much more vulnerable to fraud,” wrote Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos, of Corpus Christi, in an April ruling that the Legislature intentionally discriminated against minorities in passing the ID law.

Lawmakers in 2011 would have known they were addressing the less-documented problem if they had read their own past research.

“Overall, most allegations of election fraud that appear in the news or result in indictments relate to early voting by mail ballots,” the Texas House Committee on Elections concluded in a 2006 interim report.

That committee offered similar findings in a 2008 interim report.  

Kirby Wilson contributed to this report.  

Correction: A previous version of this story included an incorrect vote count for the bill.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • A bill that cleared the Legislature aims to prevent voter fraud at nursing homes and widen ballot access for elderly Texans. Somehow, politics didn't get in the way. [Full story]

  • True The Vote says it’s running short on the cash needed to complete an audit of 2016 presidential voting — an effort Donald Trump, while spreading unproven claims of fraud, applauded in his first days in the White House. [Full story]

  • A barrage of court rulings has forced Texas leaders to confront whether they strayed too far in enacting voting laws found to have disproportionately burdened minorities. [Full story]

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