AUSTIN, Texas -- A sweeping Texas bill that would toughen penalties for election-related crimes advanced Monday over protests from civil rights groups who say it punishes voters with jail time for making potentially honest mistakes.
The GOP-backed measure, which has now tentatively cleared the Texas Senate, has intensified voting rights battles in the Capitol at a time when state elections officials are under scrutiny over a bungled search in January for illegal voters. The bill has also drawn national attention from Democrats, including Stacy Abrams, the former Georgia gubernatorial candidate who narrowly lost in November.
The measure known as Senate Bill 9 would make it a felony to put false information on a voter registration form, which Democrats say could dissuade people from trying to cast a ballot. The bill would also make it a new crime — a misdemeanor — to impede access to a polling location.
Republicans say the measure is a needed election safeguard in Texas, where in recent years some illegal voting cases have resulted in tough prison sentences .
Mineola Republican Sen. Bryan Hughes said the heart of his measure is a provision that would require a paper backup system to help ensure accuracy in the event of a recount.
"Let me make this clear, there are no changes in this bill that are intended or would create a pitfall or a trap for the unwary or a gotcha in elections," Hughes said. "Changes in this bill are to catch and punish cheaters, and I think we all agree if someone is cheating they should be held accountable—we make no apology for that."
Senate lawmakers passed the proposal 19-12 nearly two months after U.S. District Judge Fred Biery of San Antonio said there was no evidence of widespread election fraud in Texas.
Biery's decision temporarily halted a failed search for illegal voters in the state, which began in January with the release of a deeply flawed list of 98,000 voters who were flagged as possibly not being citizens. President Donald Trump seized on the reports to renew unsubstantiated claims of rampant illegal voting.
Within days, however, it emerged that the list wasn't vetted and included scores of U.S. citizens.
Under the bill, Texas constituents would face a "state jail felony" for providing any false information on voter registration forms, boosting the current misdemeanor penalty. Another portion would require people who help constituents with transportation to polling places to complete a form stating the voter is physically unable to go without personal assistance or potentially damaging their health.
It would mandate the use of an "audible voting system" for elections systems that creates a paper record for voters to verify their vote was cast properly.
Texas Civil Rights Project Senior Attorney James Slattery said the measure reflects what he called the most radical anti-voter bill introduced in the state Legislature in recent years.
"We see SB 9 as overall an attempt to make it more difficult and confusing and scary for voters by imposing more red tape and bureaucracy on voters and election officials," Slattery said.