AUSTIN (Nexstar) — More than 100 witnesses signed up to testify on a controversial election bill that’s already passed the Texas Senate and is now under consideration in the Texas House Elections Committee.
Senate Bill 9, filed by State Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, was characterized as a bill that would require a paper trail for elections systems to help with any needed audits. It would create a pilot program that would use the paper trail to ensure results match the votes cast. The idea came after the Senate Select Committee on Election Security worked on the issue during the interim, prior to the legislative session.
“The report of the committee, which was supported unanimously by the members, endorsed the adoption of election systems with a paper ballot or paper backup,” Hughes previously said. “As of the end of last year 36 states use systems only with a paper component, five use electronic only, and nine states like us have a combination of the two.”
Voting rights groups have criticized the bill as a veiled effort to limit access to the polls from the start. On Wednesday, as the Texas House Elections Committee brought up the bill for discussion and public testimony, several organizations protested the bill on the steps of the Texas State Capitol. The problems they have with the bill include the criminal penalties attached to certain election-related issues. Alex Birnel from MOVE Texas feels the threat of criminal penalties alone could deter a person from voting in what he describes as an already confusing process.
“SB 9 takes that confusion, that labyrinthian system, and heightens it to criminality, making earnest errors potentially something that could damage people’s records should they be prosecuted,” he said.
Some elections administrators told lawmakers poll workers will likely feel the same sort of concern, since they could also face criminal penalties for missing tasks like making copies of zero tapes and results tapes. Christopher Davis, president of the Texas Association of Election Administrators and Williamson County’s elections administrator, says those are the things used to verify that there are no results or any ballots counted on the machines when the early voting period begins, or on the start of election day.
“We train our workers to do that,” he said. “Most of the time, they do that, but there are so many things that a poll worker has to do on an election day that if they forget, this bill criminalizes that innocent omission of this task.”
“We think, as some of the representatives on the committee said, that it will have a chilling effect on the pool of poll workers that we constantly need to find to work elections,” he added.
Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, who chairs the House Elections Committee, agreed that poll workers have a difficult job. However, Klick said criminal penalties already exist in current election laws and views this bill as an enhancement of that.
“I think it’s a complicated bill and for people that do not know existing election law and what the procedures are, they think that this is something new, when in fact, it’s not,” she said.
Another aspect of the bill facing criticism is a measure that requires drivers who transport at least three people who they aren’t related to for curbside voting to sign a form ensuring they know about those voters’ disabilities. Klick said the intent of that language is to ensure people who aid the voters curbside won’t influence them and “that they’re going to assist them as the voter directs them to.”
Some legislators on the committee said they have many unanswered questions about the intent of the legislation.
“I’d rather do an education process,” Rep. Philip Cortez, D-San Antonio, said. “I’d rather ensure voters, first-time voters, new voters, have a clear understanding of what they can and can’t do. But at the same time, I’m not looking at making it into a felony.”
Registration for witnesses closed shortly after the public hearing began. Klick said the goal was to get the bill voted out of committee once there are enough votes.