For decades, Texas has maintained one of the worst voter-turnout rates in the country. Less than 61 percent of eligible Texans voted in the 2020 presidential election, placing us forty-third out of fifty states. (In Minnesota, the highest-turnout state, nearly 80 percent of eligible voters participated.) In November, 42.5 percent of eligible Texans cast ballots in the midterm election, placing us thirty-ninth in the nation. Embarrassed by these dismal figures, Texas political leaders will spend the Eighty-eighth Legislature passing laws to encourage more participation in the democratic process.
Just kidding! Instead of removing obstacles to voting, Republican legislators are introducing a slew of new bills that could disrupt elections and further depress turnout. GOP lawmakers say the bills are designed to prevent fraud and ensure election integrity. But several of the proposals—such as a bill by Republican representative Bryan Slaton, of Royse City, that would shorten the early-voting period from two weeks to one week—have no obvious rationale other than to make voting less convenient. (Slaton did not respond to an interview request.) Indeed, this and many other bills seem to proceed from the assumption that too many Texans are taking advantage of their constitutional right to select their leaders. Narrowing the franchise has long been a national Republican priority, although politicians are seldom as explicit as former president Donald Trump, who warned that 2020 voting reforms proposed by congressional Democrats would lead to “levels of voting that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
Trump’s concern was probably unfounded. There’s no consensus among political scientists on whether higher turnout benefits one party over another. Indeed, rising turnout in recent Texas elections has simply led to more Republican victories. The Texas GOP, it would appear, has little to fear from more election participation. But that doesn’t seem to have dampened the party’s enthusiasm for making it harder to vote. On the contrary: fueled by Trump’s false claims of a stolen election, Texas Republicans have become obsessed with the specter of voter fraud. Attorney General Ken Paxton has spent at least $2.2 million on an Ahab-like quest to find incidents of voter fraud. Between January 2020 and September 2022, he opened nearly four hundred investigations into potential election crimes yet secured only five election-related convictions.
In 2021, Governor Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 1, a far-reaching “election integrity and security” package, into law. The measure prohibited 24-hour voting and drive-through voting, pandemic-inspired innovations in Harris County that drove up turnout in 2020. It also imposed confusing new vote-by-mail requirements, including forcing each voter to write the ID number with which they registered to vote—either their driver’s license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number—on the ballot. (If they forgot which ID they used to register and picked the wrong one, they were out of luck.) Failure to meet the new requirements led to an unprecedented 12 percent of mail-in ballots being rejected in last year’s primary. (The rejection rate fell for the general election, as Texas voters learned to include both their driver’s license and Social Security numbers.) The bill, Abbott proclaimed in 2021, would “make it easier to vote and harder to cheat.” The same year, Texas secretary of state John Scott launched a “full forensic audit” of the 2020 presidential election in four large Texas counties. The audit, which wrapped up in December 2022, found significant administrative dysfunction in Harris County, but no evidence of widespread voter fraud. Scott, who resigned in December after a little more than a year on the job, has urged “Stop the Steal” activists to accept President Biden’s victory in 2020, blaming their concerns on “a lack of information.”
But as noted philosopher Donald Rumsfeld liked to say, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Just as Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction was an article of faith in the Bush White House, the existence of widespread election fraud has become an article of faith for many in the Texas GOP. To cite just one example, Republican representative Steve Toth, of the Woodlands, author of a bill requiring unique electronic codes for absentee ballots, has accused Democrats of using paper ballots to commit voter fraud and defended MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell’s crusade to prove that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. At its summer convention, the Texas GOP adopted a platform calling President Joe Biden’s victory illegitimate and urging politicians to focus on “election integrity.” To this end, Republican lawmakers have filed more than a dozen bills designed to root out supposed electoral chicanery. To be sure, Democrats have filed plenty of their own election bills, most of them intended to encourage voter registration and make it easier to cast a ballot. But with Republicans controlling the House, Senate, and Governor’s Mansion, there is little chance of the Democratic bills becoming law. Nor will every Republican-authored bill ultimately pass.
With those caveats out of the way, here’s a preview of the major voting bills filed so far in the Eighty-eighth Legislature.
Authors: Representatives David Spiller (R-Jacksboro) and Cole Hefner (R-Mount Pleasant) / Senator Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola)
Purpose: Increases penalty for voter fraud from a Class A misdemeanor to a felony.
Background: In 2021, Governor Abbott signed SB 1, the controversial voting bill that Democrats attempted to block by fleeing to Washington, D.C. The bill eventually passed, but not before a conference committee added a provision lowering the offense of voting illegally from a second-degree felony to a Class A misdemeanor. Less than a month later, after receiving blowback from fellow Republicans, Abbott called on lawmakers to make voter fraud a felony again. These bills answer his call. Class A misdemeanors are punishable by up to a year in jail, while a second-degree felony is punishable by up to twenty years in prison.
Author: Representative Bryan Slaton (R-Royse City)
Purpose: Requires district attorneys, under penalty of removal from office, to enforce state election laws.
Background: Republicans have accused the Democratic district attorneys in large cities such as Dallas and Austin of failing to pursue election fraud with sufficient vigor. Attorney General Ken Paxton has sought to prosecute election cases himself, but in September, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that he must receive permission from local prosecutors to pursue such cases.
Author: Representative Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands)
Purpose: Requires each absentee ballot to include a unique electronic code to verify its authenticity.
Background: For years, right-wing activists have claimed that voting by mail is uniquely vulnerable to election fraud. Former president Trump urged his supporters to vote in person, and he cast efforts to encourage voting by mail during the COVID-19 pandemic as a way for Democrats to steal the election. This bill appears designed to prevent voters from photocopying absentee ballots—a phenomenon for which there is no evidence.
Authors: Representative Valoree Swanson (R-Spring) / Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston)
Purpose: Establishes a cadre of “election marshals”—law enforcement officers appointed by the Secretary of State to investigate election fraud. Calls for regional task forces of judges to adjudicate allegations of election fraud on and before Election Day.
Background: This bill is one of numerous GOP proposals in the current Legislature inspired by Florida governor Ron DeSantis. In this case, the new office of election marshal appears modeled after Florida’s Office of Election Crimes and Security, which has charged 20 Floridians (out of 11 million voters in 2020) with voting illegally since it was established last year. The Texas bill prohibits judges from overseeing election challenges in their own counties, apparently under the assumption that these judges would be biased against the candidates challenging the election.
Author: Representative Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands)
Purpose: Permits a candidate, county party chair, or presiding judge to demand an explanation from the county clerk for any perceived breaches of election law or “irregularities in precinct results.” If the explanation is considered unsatisfactory, an audit may be requested from the Secretary of State.
Background: This bill requires local election officials to provide documents and data in response to allegations of election improprieties. Since the 2020 presidential election, election officials across the state have been swamped by open records requests and other inquiries from “Stop the Steal” activists. If passed, this bill would increase the workload of already-strained election offices.
Author: Representative Jared Patterson (R-Frisco)
Purpose: Allows election judges to carry handguns inside polling places.
Background: In 2018, Attorney General Paxton issued a nonbinding opinion stating that election judges had the authority to carry firearms into polling places—despite the fact that polls are one of the few places in the state where guns are prohibited. Patterson introduced a version of this bill in 2021, arguing that it would “improve enforcement of our future elections, discourage bad actors, and further ensure the safety of Texas voters.” The measure passed the House but not the Senate, so Patterson is reintroducing it in the Eighty-eighth Legislature.
Author: Representative Keith Bell (R-Forney)
Purpose: Allows the attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to pursue election offenses in an adjacent county.
Background: Last year, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that Paxton could not prosecute election-related crimes except at the request of a local district attorney. This bill seeks to do an end run around that requirement by allowing Paxton to appoint prosecutors from adjacent counties to investigate alleged election fraud.
Author: Representative Cole Hefner (R-Mount Pleasant)
Purpose: Requires any hardware used in voting systems, if manufactured outside the United States, to be delivered without “embedded software” installed.
Background: One popular conspiracy theory about the 2020 presidential election holds that voting machines, many of them manufactured abroad, contained software allowing election officials to change vote tallies. Sidney Powell, one of Trump’s election lawyers, falsely alleged that Dominion voting machines were “flipping votes in the computer system or adding votes that did not exist.” This bill appears designed to prohibit such vote-flipping software from being installed.
Author: Representative Bryan Slaton (R-Royse City)
Purpose: Shortens the early-voting period from two weeks to one week.
Background: In the wake of former president Trump’s claims of widespread election fraud, a number of right-wing activists advocated restricting elections to a single day of in-person voting. The 2022 Texas GOP platform, in an apparent compromise, called for a three-day voting period. Across the country, early-voting periods range from no early voting (Alabama and New Hampshire) to 46 days before the election (Minnesota). One 2020 academic study found that each additional day of early voting increases turnout by 0.22 percent.
Author: Representative Dennis Paul (R-Houston)
Purpose: Sets earlier deadlines for submitting applications for mail-in ballots and mailing the ballots themselves. Prohibits counties from beginning to count mail-in ballots until noon on Election Day (if counting ballots by hand), 3 p.m. (for large counties using computers), or 6 p.m. (for small counties using computers).
Background: Currently, mail-in ballot applications must be submitted no later than the eleventh day before an election, while the ballot itself must be postmarked by Election Day. Under Paul’s bill, mail-in ballot applications must be submitted no later than the fifteenth day before an election, and ballots must be postmarked no later than four days before Election Day. Under current law, election officers can start counting mail-in ballots when the polls open on Election Day (for small counties) or at the end of early voting (for large counties). Preventing counties from beginning to count mail-in ballots until the end of Election Day would delay the early-voting returns, which in recent elections have tended to favor Democrats.