Voting illegally could jump from a Class A misdemeanor to a second-degree felony next year, if a bill proposed by a Tarrant County representative is approved by fellow legislators.
Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, filed House Bill 397 to amend the state’s election code and enforce higher penalties for illegal voting activities. Sen. Bryan Hughes, who represents East Texas, filed a companion bill in the Senate.
Goldman did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The move comes as concern over election integrity grows in Tarrant County and beyond, despite little evidence of widespread voter fraud. An audit of the 2020 general election, ordered by Gov. Greg Abbott, legitimized elections in Tarrant County. The small amount of voter fraud revealed by the audit would not have significantly affected the results of the 2020 election, auditors concluded.
“To understand the legislation, you have to understand the narrative that’s popular among the Republican base,” said Mark Jones, a professor in the department of political science at Rice University. “This type of legislation is designed far more to appeal to the base and signal that the Republican Party is doing all it can to combat fraud.”
A research poll conducted by the University of Texas/Texas Politics Project Poll in October found 32% of respondents wanted stricter voting laws. Only 25% wanted less strict voting laws, while 34% wanted the laws to be left as they are.
Nearly half of all Republican respondents favored the stricter voter laws, compared with only 14% of Democrat respondents.
A local conservative group called Citizens for Election Integrity Texas has continued to pressure Tarrant County election officials over what they see as weaknesses in the system, including the use of electronic voting machines. Members of the group have said they don’t trust the 2020 audit or other audits like it, because they aren’t conducted by an independent third party outside of the state government.
What constitutes illegal voting in Texas?
A person commits an offense if the person knowingly or intentionally:
- Votes or attempts to vote in an election in which the person knows the person is not eligible to vote.
- Votes or attempts to vote more than once in an election.
- Votes or attempts to vote a ballot belonging to another person, or by impersonating another person.
- Marks or attempts to mark any portion of another person’s ballot without the consent of that person, or without specific direction from that person how to mark the ballot.
- Votes or attempts to vote in an election in this state after voting in another state in an election in which a federal office appears on the ballot and the election day for both states is the same day.
Three other House bills, filed by representatives outside of Tarrant County, also seek to increase penalties for illegal voting — House Bill 39, House Bill 52 and House Bill 222.
The bills follow the rollout of Senate Bill 1 in 2021, a piece of election legislation that placed various restrictions on voting activity in Texas. Among the smaller changes in the bill was lowering the penalty for illegal voting from a second degree felony to a misdemeanor. Shortly after its passage, however, Republican leadership began calling for the penalty to be restored to a felony, resulting in bills like Goldman’s.
Daniel Griffith, senior director of policy at the nonpartisan election nonprofit Secure Democracy, said the bills have a good chance to pass.
“It certainly seems like this idea of raising the penalty up to a felony is a priority, at least from what we’ve seen in the prefiled bills, and certainly from statements we’ve seen from some lawmakers as well,” Griffith said.
But the notion that increasing penalties would lower an already low amount of voter fraud doesn’t have data to back it up, Griffith said. Other states have also increased penalties, he said, without a larger change in documented cases of fraud.
“There’s nothing that we can point to that says, ‘Yes, this definitely reduces what was pretty much non-existent to begin with’,” he said.
Illegal voting convictions are uncommon in Texas. One conviction, of Tarrant County resident Crystal Mason, has been challenged in the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Now, Mason’s case is under review by the court.
“It’s incredibly intimidating,” Matt Simpson, ACLU of Texas policy and advocacy director, said of increased penalties for illegal voting activity. “Look at the other crimes that are also second-degree felonies. We’re talking aggravated robbery, burglary. Fairly serious crimes. The kinds of things that can make you violate the illegal voting statute certainly don’t involve violence.”
That intimidation factor could result in Texans choosing not to vote at all, despite their right to do so, Simpson said. The UT/Texas Politics Project Poll indicated eligible voters being prevented from voting was an “extremely serious concern” for 36% of respondents.
Fears of voter suppression tend to be overblown by Democrat lawmakers, Jones said, just as fears of fraud are overblown by Republicans.
“At the margins, (Senate Bill 1) may have made it a little more difficult to vote, but voting is still quite convenient and quite easy in Texas,” Jones said. “We have a long early voting period. Most of our major counties have Election Day vote centers and early voting. Those 65 and over can vote by mail.”
Two bills criminalizing specific voting behavior were passed into law last session. House Bill 574 made it a felony to knowingly count an invalid vote or to refuse to count a valid vote, while Senate Bill 1 created criminal penalties for multiple offenses and curtailed how residents are able to vote.
Alice Huling, senior legal counsel on voting rights with Campaign Legal Center, said it’s important to recognize House Bill 397 doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
“This obviously part of an ongoing conversation in Texas about whether these penalties should be increased or decreased,” she said. “We’re seeing a real push for this sort of increase in this juncture going into this next session. And we’ve seen that in other states as well.”
Simpson suggested the Legislature focus on other election issues that came up during the 2022 primary election, including a high number of rejected mail-in ballots. Voters of color were disproportionately affected by ballot rejections.
When voting by mail, Senate Bill 1 requires voters to write their driver’s license number, personal identification number or the last four digits of their Social Security number on their application. The number must be the same as the one they originally used to register. Simpson said it’d be an easy fix for legislators to simplify the process.
What major changes were made under Senate Bill 1?
- Mail-in ballots must have the voter’s driver’s license number or social security number.
- Drive-in voting locations are no longer allowed.
- Those helping voters with disabilities must sign an oath attesting they did not coerce the voter or accept compensation for their assistance.
“This legislation has a reasonable chance at passage … Some type of bill like that is going to pass as a way for the Republican leadership to signal to the Republican base that they are doing what needs to be done to prevent fraud moving forward,” Jones said. “What’s not clear is which specific item they are going to use because whatever they do is going to be primarily symbolic.”
Huling said a focus on educating voters and providing them with clear information on how to vote in Texas is preferable to further criminalization.
“Voters shouldn’t have to question whether or not they can cast a ballot in their election,” she said. “They should be able to rely on guidance from the experts that they seek out on this right and the state should be the one providing clear guidance and training.”
Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.