Texas Republicans quietly reduced penalties for honest voting errors

Republican priority voting reforms and restrictions signed into law last week added a number of new election-related crimes and raised criminal penalties for others, which were hotly debated this summer.

But one of the main provisions of this kind attracted little attention.

The bill reduced the offense of illegal voting from a second-degree felony to a Class A felony, the latter punishable by one year in prison.

He also made a slight change to require that a person accused of illegal voting should do so “consciously,” as currently established by law, or “intentionally”.

The provisions could affect ongoing cases that inflamed the debate on the bill, including that of Crystal Mason, a Black Fort Worth woman facing five years in state prison for illegally voting a provisional ballot – which was never counted – although he said he did not. I know I was not fit to vote.

In another high-profile case that could be affected, Hervis Rogers, a Houston black man this year, was charged with illegal voting after being national headliners for his six-hour wait in line for the 2020 primary election.

The ACLU, whose lawyers, among others on the legal team, represent both Mason and Rogers, could not be reached for comment.

The crime of illegal voting accounts for nearly half of all pending cases of fraud by Texas Attorney General voters, about 20, although most are related to an alleged illegal voting scheme in a general election. mayor in Edinburgh in 2017. The office also did not respond to a request for comment.

The changes originated from an amendment by state Representative Steve Allison, R-San Antonio, to the House floor in late August. Allison was not available for an interview, but her chief of staff, Rocky Gage, said Allison wanted to make sure people who vote illegally accidentally do not face charges. The amendment was not drafted specifically in light of Mason’s case, Gage said, but to address the general issue.

“The main reason for presenting it: Rep. Allison, he and other members thought it was important to establish this‘ intentional ’piece,” Gage said. “There’s a lot of talk – (state representative) Diego Bernal, for example, said,‘ If I help my grandmother and I don’t know (it’s illegal), now I have problems. ’So we thought about resolving these concerns: solve them.

“I think members understood that it was important,” Gage said.

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, a founding member of the House’s bipartisan criminal justice reform caucus, said the provision was part of the legislature’s “holistic approach to advancing electoral integrity.” it achieved “the right balance between access to voting and accountability.”

The reduction in the sentence will protect voters from making innocent mistakes and help state attorneys stay focused on the few true actors, said C. Robert Heath, an election lawyer who served as Democratic attorney general for Texas John Hill in the 1970s.

“Laws are more easily enforced when they are more reasonable,” Heath said. “Most people who vote illegally, and I don’t think there are many, do it because they are confused or don’t understand the law.”

Regardless of the punishment, Heath said there is a reason why cases of election fraud are so rare.

“Whether it’s a felony or a felony, it’s a high risk and a low reward,” he said. “If you change the result, it is a very unusual situation and a vote will not. You will need a lot of votes. “

Still, there are some Republicans who say any easing of punishments in the electoral code is a mistake. Among them is Andrew Eller, a 25-year-old electoral judge in Bell County, who advocated higher sentences for judges who reject voting observers.

“My thoughts are that the toughest sanctions are always the best when it comes to illegal voting,” Eller said in an interview Friday. “When a person throws an illegal ballot, he takes the legal ballot from another person. If you do it consciously, it should be a higher standard. “

Mason’s case was at one point between the Texas House and the Senate. The bill was one step away from the passage if the Senate had accepted the changes to the House, but the author of the bill, Senator Bryan Hughes of R-Mineola, said he disagreed with an amendment the House intended to clarify the law in cases like Mason’s.

The amendment, a bipartisan effort by representatives Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park and John Bucy III, D-Austin, would have specified that a person must not only know the circumstances that made him ineligible, but also that those circumstances are ‘apply to them. .

The Fort Worth Court of Appeal, in affirming Mason’s conviction, had argued that the state should only show that it voted knowing the condition that made it ineligible: that at that time it was on federally supervised release.

A conference committee consisting of members of both chambers was convened with instructions from Hughes to withdraw the amendment and did so. Neither Hughes nor the House author’s representative, Andrew Murr, of R-Junction, responded to a request for comment.

The House later passed a resolution, an expression of formal opinion that lacks the force of law, stating that members opposed the prosecution of jeans that vote by mistake without knowing they are ineligible. Phelan noted that the resolution “was overwhelmingly passed.”

Chuck DeVore, vice president of national initiatives for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said that while the organization did not take a specific position on the provision, it did support another part of the bill. 1 of the Senate which requires courts to report offenders. of their eligibility to vote after being convicted. Mason was on supervised release and Rogers was on parole when they tried to vote.

“It’s not a shock to me, because I don’t think a lot of people want these rare cases to be prosecuted,” DeVore said, referring to cases where voters made honest mistakes.

DeVore pointed to data from the attorney general’s office showing that only four cases over 16 years involved a voter who was not eligible to vote.

“The impression was that members on both sides weren’t really excited about that kind of punishment,” he said.

One of the main priorities of the Republicans in this session was a section that created a specific criminal penalty for the collection of votes, the fact of illegally coercing people to vote in a certain way in exchange for compensation. or some other benefit, which is now a third-degree felony.

DeVore added that, seen in combination with this provision, it makes sense to reduce the crime of “illegal voting.”

“You want to go looking for the people who actually organize these schemes, rather than the people who were brought in so that in many cases they would participate in‘ dupes, ’” DeVore said. “I’m not particularly concerned about the 20 people who are tied to one of these schemes and each of them charges ten dollars.”

taylor.goldenstein@chron.com

Credit – https://www.houstonchronicle.com/politics/texas/article/Voters-who-make-mistakes-get-a-break-with-new-16450334.php