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Tougher penalties for mail-in ballot fraud up for debate Monday in Texas House committee

Monday, Mar 28, 2011, 12:48PM CST
By Steve Miller
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Political workers found guilty of mail-in ballot fraud would face harsher punishment under bills proposed by Rep. Aaron Peña, R-Edinburg, who is targeting the practice with more than two dozen bills, including several set for debate today in the House Elections Committee.

Stemming mail-in fraud -- an old and entrenched practice in South Texas that is arguably the most prevalent form of voter fraud in Texas -- doesn't have the political gleam of the recently passed voter ID legislation. But given the Republican majority in both chambers, Peña is optimistic at least a few of his measures will pass.

 

“Democrats will not compromise in this, and I know that because I was one,” he said. Peña changed his party affiliation shortly before the legislative session, and prior to that was known as a conservative-tilting Democrat.

 

“They benefit from the politiquera system in South Texas. They need it to be competitive in certain districts,” Peña said, referencing the ballot harvesters known as politiqueras. “People down here are addicted to the system."

Aaron PenaPEÑA

Peña has introduced 25 bills that touch on mail-in, absentee balloting. One, House Bill 2585, would increase penalties for illegally possessing ballots. Another, House Bill 2586, would raise the penalty for lying on a mail-in ballot application from a misdemeanor to a felony.

“These bills are aimed at enhancing penalties,” Peña said. “There is just no doubt that this activity is going on, and it needs a law to stop it.”

 

Peña is supported by a cadre of Republicans, and he said he expects much the same resistance from Democrats that was heard during the heated and partisan voter ID debate. A newly created House select committee, voter identification and voter fraud, is composed of three Democrats and six Republicans. 

 

On the Senate side, Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, has introduced Senate Bill 997, which would prohibit anyone from inspecting mail-in ballot applications until after election day. Under current law, those applications are pored over by politiqueras, who visit the homes of those on the list under the auspices of assisting voters. The workers may pressure voters into casting ballots for the worker's candidates or fill out the ballot themselves to favor their candidates.

 

Shapiro's bill has been in committee since March 21. No hearing is scheduled. Shapiro did not return a call placed on Sunday.

 

During debate of the voter ID bill, Democrats reasoned that since mail-in ballot fraud was more prevalent in Texas, a policy aimed at in-person voting was misguided.

 

"If voter fraud is your purpose, why not a photo requirement for mail-in ballots?" state Sen, Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, asked during voter ID discussion in January. "Wouldn't you say there is more room for fraud with mail-in ballots?... Would you concede that there is more potential for mail-in ballot fraud than with someone showing up?"

 

Sen, Royce West, D-Dallas, also evoked absentee fraud during the debate, and noted the absence of legislation addressing that from the legislature as a whole.

 

“We’ve done nothing on that,” West said.

 

It’s been eight years since House Bill 54, the last far-reaching change in the law regarding absentee ballots. The law set out penalties for appropriating ballots and otherwise abusing the mail-in voter process.

 

Former state Rep. Steve Wolens, a Dallas Democrat, was its architect.

 

Peña voted for it then, as a Democrat.

 

“It was great legislation that even had bipartisan support," Peña said. And referring to Rep. Joe Pickett, the sole House Democrat to support voter ID, he said, "I think our friend from El Paso, on the voter ID measure, shows that stopping voter fraud is something everyone stands behind.”

 

***

Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.


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Photo of money by flickr user ms sdb, used via a Creative Commons license.

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