Amid the passage of controversial voter ID laws, this session Texas lawmakers also tackled a different form of voter fraud in a significantly less controversial manner. The Texas Legislature took steps to end voter fraud stemming from mail-in ballots. Senate Bill 5 passed the legislature and was signed into law on June 15. The law becomes effective on January 1, 2018. This law expands the definition of mail-in voter fraud and increases the penalties for the crime. Several voter fraud cases were prosecuted in recent years, and there have been concerns from individuals who received mail-in ballots they never requested.
A recent Dallas city council election had approximately 700 suspicious mail-in ballots submitted, which was one of the primary factors driving this bill. This contested election went to a runoff which resulted in a loss for the incumbent, the result those suspected of voter fraud wanted to obtain. While it is unknown how many of the 700 ballots actually were fraudulent, the large number of suspicious ballots is certainly a valid concern for legislators to address.
One of the biggest concerns with this law is the harsh penalties, as those who violate the law could face between two and ten years in prison. Opponents are concerned that those who are not voting fraudulently, but instead fill out their own absentee ballot without the proper degree of care, could end up in prison for a simple mistake. While an optimist would think that prosecutorial discretion would prevent such oversight, that might not be realistic. It could turn into a way to target voters of opposing political parties. While it is unclear if the law will be used in this manner, it is something Texas voters should be aware of going forward.
In Texas, mail-in voting is only allowed for specific circumstances, not for every voter. The legislature chose to address fraud relating to the provisions they already have instead of expanding mail-in voting to more individuals. In terms of the legislature’s motivation, it seems that this law was passed with the primary goal of fixing what is wrong with the current system. They could have opted to expand voting, however that could increase the frequency of fraud, or at least allegations of fraud.
The passage of Senate Bill 5 included the repeal of a Nursing Home provision. The Nursing Home provision would have created a more structured process for the collection of ballots at nursing homes. Election judges of each political party would have gone to nursing homes with ballots and to oversee voting. Proponents claim that this would prevent voter fraud, discourage undue influence, and make the process easier for the elderly. The removal of the provision was opposed by Democrats and some Republicans. If the provision remained in the bill, it would have expanded the ability to vote to people who might not otherwise have that opportunity.
Overall this law seems to be a positive step to curbing an actual problem in Texas elections. While it is hard to know whether or not this will be successful in action, other states may follow suit if the changes seem to be effective.