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Texas Lawmakers Consider Stiff Penalties For Voting Crimes

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Texas lawmakers want to increase criminal penalties for what they call voter fraud. But voting-rights groups say that could mean big penalties on voters who make simple errors when casting a ballot or even when they're filling out a voter registration form. Ashley Lopez of member station KUT in Austin reports.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Kathy Miller is the president of a group called the Texas Freedom Network that registers young voters. Miller says she's concerned about a sweeping voting bill called Senate Bill 9 that includes stiffer criminal penalties for various voting crimes. Miller says that includes relatively small things.

KATHY MILLER: If Senate Bill 9 passes, a person who makes a simple mistake - puts the wrong ZIP code on a voter registration card - could be prosecuted, fined and even put in jail.

LOPEZ: Providing false information on a voter application is currently a misdemeanor in Texas. If this bill becomes law, though, it would become a state felony that could result in jail time. The sponsor of Senate Bill 9 is Republican State Senator Bryan Hughes. He says the point of the bill is to give prosecutors more teeth.

BRYAN HUGHES: This bill is aimed at people who are intentionally cheating. This is not to catch people who make an honest mistake.

LOPEZ: But voting rights lawyers are worried. James Slattery is with the Texas Civil Rights Project. He says that one part of Senate Bill 9 increases criminal penalties for casting a ballot, including a provisional ballot if you aren't eligible to vote. That's even though provisional ballots were created to allow people to vote if they aren't sure they can. But they're only counted once election officials can prove the voter is eligible. Slattery says Senate Bill 9 undermines that protection.

JAMES SLATTERY: It would assume that if you knew the facts that made you ineligible to vote, even if you didn't know the law, casting that provisional ballot would essentially make you a criminal.

LOPEZ: For example, if you know you're on parole, but you don't know that you can't vote if you're on parole, you can be charged with a crime. Another provision, Slattery says, creates new regulations and rules for people who need assistance while voting.

SLATTERY: This bill essentially assumes suspicion of that person trying to vote by imposing all kinds of new forms on her and others like her who are elderly, disabled or speak a non-English language.

LOPEZ: Slattery thinks all these new rules will create a chilling effect that will dissuade Texans from voting. But State Senator Hughes says he does not see it that way. For one, he says, a lot of these infractions are already crimes in Texas.

HUGHES: It doesn't make sense to us that a law-abiding voter who wasn't shilled when it was a Class A misdemeanor - now that it's been raised to a state jail felony - is going to decide, oh, I guess I'm not going to vote. That just doesn't make sense to me.

LOPEZ: When pressed about why stiffer penalties are needed, Hughes says he's heard anecdotally about voter fraud but says it's hard to prove how widespread it is. Voting rights groups are suspicious. They say Texas lawmakers and officials have intentionally been making it harder to vote for years. A few months ago, Texas election officials launched a troubled effort to remove alleged noncitizens from the state's voter rolls. Kathy Miller says she thinks this is all political.

MILLER: The folks in power are very nervous about the voter turnout that happened in 2018 - lots of young voters, lots of people of color that they hadn't seen at the polls before. And they're afraid of having their power taken away.

LOPEZ: Democrats gained two congressional seats and 12 State House seats in Texas last year, not to mention coming closer than they have in decades in the Senate race. Voting groups say they have every reason to expect that voter turnout will only grow during the presidential election next year. For NPR News, I'm Ashley Lopez in Austin.

(SOUNDBITE HADOKEN'S "TIME AND THE OBSERVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.