AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Voting rights and accessibility groups protested legislation they say would limit Texans’ access to the polls.
Groups including MOVE Texas, Texas Freedom Network, RevUp, Texas Civil Rights Project, and the League of Women Voters of Texas, voiced their opposition to Senate Bill 9, which would require a paper trail for elections systems to prepare for any audits.
It also requires the Texas Secretary of State’s office to implement a pilot program and a series of audits to make sure electronic systems are counting votes correctly.
The legislation passed through the senate along party lines Monday.
The bill would also prohibit anyone from impeding walkways, sidewalks, parking lots, or roadways within 1,000 feet of a polling place. Right now the rule is limited to 100 feet.
“New rules about distance from polling locations in the name of decreasing impediments would jeopardize our “party at the poll” program, which brings people to the polls, does not deter them,” said Alex Birnel of MOVE Texas. “We fight to modernize voting, making it easier, less onerous. SB 9 criminalizes in the face of obvious solutions.”
The civil rights and voting rights groups against the bill say it could place eligible voters in jail for a simple mistake while giving state officials unprecedented power over private information.
“[SB 9] would do many things but by and large would make voting much more difficult, cumbersome and a much longer process for voters across the State of Texas,” said Zenén Jaimes Pérez, with the Texas Civil Rights Project.
Republican lawmakers say they are trying to protect the integrity of the election process.
“Texas takes election fraud seriously,” State Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, said in a statement. Hughes authored the legislation.
“We must ensure that every vote is counted accurately and that those who cheat are held accountable,” said Hughes, who chaired the Senate Select Committee On Election Security during the interim.
“From the Rio Grande Valley to East Texas to the Metroplex, we have had troubling allegations or incidents of voter fraud,” Hughes added. “The ability to govern ourselves is tied to the integrity of the ballot, and conducting secure elections is a core function of state government. Ensuring that our electronic systems have a paper audit trail will greatly enhance security. Moreover, stiffening penalties for voter fraud will deter violations of this sacred right of democratic government.”
Senate Bill 9 would also allow law enforcement to test election systems. The bill also would add tougher penalties for false statements on voter registration applications and unlawful assistance in voting, according to Hughes’ office.
“SB 9 makes it harder to cheat,” State Sen. Pat Fallon, R-Wichita Falls, said. “If we don’t have free and open elections then we don’t have an honest system of government. We don’t want to disenfranchise anyone, and we have to make sure that we have election integrity.”
Andrew Segura, legal director for the ACLU of Texas, called the bill “dangerous” in a statement and said it would “put innocent people in jail for trying to exercise their constitutional rights.”
“People who make innocent mistakes concerning their eligibility to vote will be sentenced to felony jail time, even if they only filled out a provisional ballot,” Segura stated.
Fallon disagrees with that notion.
“First and for most, ignorance of the law is no excuse,” the freshman senator argued. “What we need to ensure it is people that, let’s say, register to vote that are not citizens, that’s a crime. And you can’t say, ‘Well I didn’t know.’ You have to know. Just the same thing as ‘Oh I robbed a liquor store, I didn’t know that was illegal.’ Yeah? Well it is.”
In a Tuesday tweet, State Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, called the bill “another voter suppression bill.”
“If we’re going to make people felons, we should at least make sure they are intentionally committing the fraud and not just checking the wrong box,” he tweeted.
The bill now heads to the House for consideration.