The House Elections Committee on Monday heard bills addressing absentee ballot fraud, measures aimed at reforming the mail-in ballot process in the state and making it tougher for individuals to alter election results.
“Assisted voter fraud is the largest growing fraud that we have,” state Rep. Aaron Peña, R-Edinburg, told the committee. “It’s an outgrowth of the old boss system, and it has never really stopped.”
Peña has filed more than two dozens bills addressing voting laws, noting that the work of vote harvesters known as politiqueras is endemic to his South Texas region.
The committee heard his House Bill 2051, which would change the state election code to ensure that someone assisting a voter is not that voter’s employer, in order to stem possible influence on a vote. Under the bill, an assistant would be required to assert under oath that he or she is not an employer or agent of the employer before assisting the voter.
Another bill would make it easier for law enforcement to pursue felony charges for possessing ballots. Vote harvesters often take the ballots of those they have assisted to the post office.
Current law makes it a misdemeanor to possess 10 to 19 ballots, a felony to possess 20 or more. House Bill 2449, filed by Rep. Jose Aliseda, would allow authorities to consider ballot possession over the course of days to boost the penalty, rather than doling out smaller charges piecemeal.
“Just so you understand, these people, especially in South Texas, are often getting paid to collect these mail-in ballots,” Aliseda, R-Beeville, told the committee. “What we are trying to do is catch them in a scheme where they are perhaps deliberately trying to avoid the felony penalty by carrying less than 20 at a time. ... I can see how someone could avoid prosecution for a felony by being careful of how many ballots a day they collect.”
He said collecting ballots is enabled by county clerks, post office employees and even election administrators in some counties, who work with vote harvesters.
“Most of this is done in the homes of people 65 and older, people that you would think are competent but they are getting help from these vote harvesters in order to, quote, cast the right ballot," Aliseda said.
Peña’s House Bill 2058 would make it a crime for someone to complete a mail-in ballot application for another without signing the application as an assistant, regardless of whether that work is done in the presence of the voter or not. Current law does not require that witness signature on the application, though it does on the ballot itself.
“People are not signing the application when they are helping, and there is no limit on how many people you can assist,” said Special Assistant U.S. Attorney David Glicker of the Texas Attorney General's Office, who attended Monday’s hearing as a witness.
Once vote harvesters learn who is getting a mail-in ballot, they go to that person, who is often elderly or infirm, and ask if they can help them prepare their ballot.
In some cases, advocates for tougher laws say, a ballot is simply removed from the mail before it reaches the voter, with the vote harvester filling it out.
Also on Monday, a Senate bill that would make a mail-in ballot application unavailable to the general public until one day after the election moved closer to passage.
Election administrators in South Texas for years have asked Austin for help in controlling the politiqueras, meeting separately last year to plan a strategy to address lawmakers.
It worked, as officials like Peña and Shapiro have responded. But is it enough?
"These bills all touch on mail-in ballot fraud, but so far it's just bits and pieces," said Rudy Montalvo, election administrator in Starr County in South
Texas and a legislative liaison for the Texas Association of Elections Administrators. "So many of these bills, they all touch on part of the problem, which is fine. This is a much better effort, though, than in previous years, when there was no effort at all."
A year ago, Montalvo said that Austin doesn't care about the voter fraud problem in South Texas.
"Now, I'm happy someone is talking about it," he said. "And I'll take anything I can get."
More bills will be heard next week, Peña said.
Some of those bills would toughen penalties, while others would make it easer to detect patterns of abuse of the voting system and investigate those abuses.
While he does not yet have an ally in the Senate, Peña said he expects to be able to recruit a sponsor.
“I don’t know that I can get re-elected after this,” Peña said. “But this is what has to be done.”
Texas Watchdog has documented the problem of mail-in ballot fraud in South Texas. Here are some of the stories:
- Some high-profile campaigns linked to South Texans accused, convicted of illegal vote harvesting (June 3)
- Did you hear the one about the voter registered 'behind the tree'? South Texas elections chiefs detail voting irregularities to state reps (Aug. 17)
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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