Bill Would Increase Criminal Penalties for Voting-related Infractions or Extend Law Enforcement’s Ability To Investigate Voters
Under new legislation proposed in Texas, the state’s Republican attorney general could send prosecutors from neighboring counties to investigate suspected cases of voter fraud in the state’s large Democratic counties.
The bill is one of at least nine filed in Texas since the November midterm elections that would increase criminal penalties for voting-related infractions or extend law enforcement’s ability to investigate voters, signaling an intensification of what is already one of the most threatening waves of voter suppression in decades.
Another proposal would allow the attorney general to remove from office a district attorney who chooses not to prosecute election crimes, effectively stripping local prosecutors of discretion over how they use their office’s resources.
The two bills targeting district attorneys, introduced by Reps. Keith Bell and Bryan Slaton, respectively, would set the stage for Republican interference in the state’s Democratic urban centers, as top GOP officials continue to push the myth that widespread voter fraud is undermining elections.
The bills were proposed about a week after Harris County, home of Houston and one of the state’s main Democratic strongholds, experienced ballot shortages and late polling site openings. Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, a Democrat, has launched an investigation, but the state’s top Republicans – including Gov. Greg Abbott – immediately seized on the confusion and used the problems as pretext to contest a number of elections, even ones Democrats won by wide margins.
“The allegations of election improprieties in our state’s largest county may result from anything ranging from malfeasance to blatant criminal conduct,” Abbott said.
Bell and Slaton are both Republicans who represent districts adjacent to Dallas County, another center of Democratic power.
Slaton’s bill, which would allow the attorney general to remove elected prosecutors whose policies he disagrees with, would give legislative cover to executive branch efforts to interfere with prosecutorial discretion on a local level – something that has happened elsewhere in the country. In August, for example, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, suspended an elected state prosecutor who said he would decline to prosecute those seeking and providing abortions in the state. The Texas bill outlines a process for the attorney general to initiate civil court proceedings against a local prosecutor, whose fate would ultimately be decided by a jury.
Neither Slaton, Bell nor Attorney General Ken Paxton’s offices responded to requests for comment.
Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting’s review of legislative records found at least seven more bills in Texas that would increase law enforcement involvement in the election process. Several bills would increase the penalty for illegal voting. Another would make it a crime for a voter to cast a ballot in a party’s primary election if the voter is not a member of that party.
Republicans were the authors of each of these bills.
The bills are part of a wave of legislation that has followed former President Donald Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was stolen by fraud. An ongoing Reveal investigation found that lawmakers across the country have introduced and passed bills that would dramatically increase law enforcement involvement in elections. In the two years since the 2020 election, legislators in 42 states introduced bills that would establish new election investigation agencies, create new election-related crimes or give law enforcement officials more power to investigate these crimes. Such laws passed in 20 states.
In 2021, for example, Texas lawmakers passed Senate Bill 1, which created new election crimes, including making it a felony for any election official to provide a mail-in ballot to someone who didn’t request it. Paxton also created an election integrity team, which has been unsuccessfully targeting election workers, according to ProPublica.
The proposed bills in Texas target phantom problems.
“District attorneys are appropriately investigating fraud, as far as we know,” said Matt Simpson, interim policy director at the ACLU of Texas. “There’s not cases where election fraud is happening and district attorneys just refuse to move forward. There’s just not evidence of these things being problems.”
Moves by the Legislature and statewide officials to undermine local elected officials’ power can also chill the vote.
“When you de-legitimize local or elected officials, you also undermine confidence in democracy,” said civil rights attorney Thomas A. Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “People lose faith that their votes matter.”
Saenz said the true intent of these efforts is to suppress the vote, particularly in marginalized communities.
Threatening people with criminal prosecution is “the most extreme deterrent you can imagine,” he said. “Even if someone has every right to vote, they may hesitate. Or if someone has every right to facilitate participation by their own family members, by their own neighbors, that causes a hesitation.”
“That’s the whole purpose of it,” Saenz said. It’s no coincidence that, in Texas, these efforts come alongside demographic changes that could weaken Republicans’ grip on power, he added.
Another Texas bill would require the secretary of state to designate select state law enforcement as “election marshals” with the power to investigate voting crimes. It was first introduced in 2021 and passed out of the state Senate but floundered in the House.
When the bill’s sponsor, Houston-area Republican Sen. Paul Bettencourt, reintroduced it in November, he said he wants to introduce more “voter integrity legislation” in the coming session. He’s also described the 2022 midterm election in Harris County as a “3rd world” contest.
Meanwhile, Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the Senate’s president, has signaled that adopting stricter penalties for election crimes will be a legislative priority in this year’s session.
“We need to restore voter fraud to a felony,” Patrick said at a press conference in late November. “Unfortunately, it was dropped to a misdemeanor last time. It’s a serious crime – you steal someone’s vote.”
SB 1 downgraded illegal voting from a felony to a misdemeanor. Under that law, illegal voting is punishable with a maximum $4,000 fine, a one-year jail term or both.
Ahead of the new legislative session, lawmakers in both legislative chambers filed four separate bills that would make illegal voting punishable by a felony charge.
One of those bills came from Slaton, a former pastor and co-author of SB 1. His bill would make illegal voting a second-degree felony, punishable by prison sentences of two to 20 years, plus a possible $10,000 fine.
Another bill would increase the criminal penalty for election fraud, or tampering with someone else’s vote.
State lawmakers are seeking to make changes to elections in other ways, too. For example, one bill would allow select poll workers, known as election judges, to carry guns at polling places during early voting and at polling places on Election Day.
The ACLU’s Simpson said Texas has a host of pressing issues that its Legislature could be addressing now in its once-every-two-years session.
“Texas, famously, has an electric grid that is different from the rest of the country, that is not that reliable,” he said. “There’s some real issues in Texas, and I think that when we get into these conversations and these policy discussions about district attorney authority and how we’re gonna, in great detail, push different agendas with different local officials – these conversations waste time that should be spent on real issues.”
This story was edited by Maryam Saleh and Andrew Donohue and copy edited by Nikki Frick.