When Texans head to the polls on Super Tuesday in 2020, the act of voting could be very different. Texas lawmakers are looking at bills to cut property taxes and boost school spending, and they're also looking at ways to secure elections in the state, particularly with Senate Bill 9.
Omar Escobar, the Starr County district attorney, said rigging elections is a business in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
"Elderly people, many of whom receive a food bank's distributions are approached by workers," he explained, "and being told, 'hey, here's the application for a ballot by mail. You need to sign this thing. And as soon as you get the ballot ... we're going to prepare it for you.' So the practice as we have seen it was that they'd go in, and ... as soon as that ballot came they swoop in and help them sort of vote 'the right way.' "
Escobar was testifying before the Texas Senate Committee on State Affairs. He said the vote harvesters were paid to collect those ballots. He said voters who handed over their mail ballots to campaign workers had little awareness that their votes were altered and that they were victimized.
"Our investigation showed that we had one person -- just one person -- assist 230 voters," he said. "Now this is just [the] application of ballot by mail. On this other side, on the in-person voting, you have people who are going to assist, and, of course, the assistant is watching this voter vote and sometimes marking the ballot for them."
He said Texas needs tougher criminal penalties for making a false statement on a voter registration application and changing votes while assisting voters illegally. Those are two proposed changes in SB9, an omnibus bill that would make sweeping alterations to how Texas votes.
But the challenge for fixing aggressive voter assistance for the elderly and disabled is that it could make it much more difficult or impossible for those citizens to vote.
Jeff Miller of Disability Rights Texas pointed to the Americans with Disabilities Act and its provisions around access to the polls.
"We believe that there needs to be some language in some of the sections," he said, "that specifically referenced those rights so that people don't lose that ability to vote independently because it's so important for the people that we represent."
Another threat to Texas elections isn’t just erasing one vote at a time but doing it by the thousands in a single second by hacking election machines.
Anthony Schaefer, an expert on cyber warfare with the London Center for Policy Research, testified before lawmakers that there are now significant vulnerabilities to the entire voting system in Texas from hackers and foreign cyber attacks. And just because an electronic voting machine isn't connected to the internet doesn't mean it's protected from hackers.
"I'm here to warn Texans that the paperless direct recording electronic voting machines, known as DREs, are open targets for foreign interference in our elections," he said, "whether it be China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, or any other nation seeking to undermine the integrity of our elections. Texas is one of only 13 states that still use DREs and is my understanding that they're using these DREs in over 140 counties."
Under SB9, there would be a requirement to upgrade the voting machines and for a paper ballot backup system that can be recounted and audited if needed. This is a standard that 36 states already have in place.
The major concern that voter rights advocates have about SB9 is the harsh criminal penalties for anyone who accidentally makes a mistake filing out a voter registration card or voting.
But Johnathan White of the Attorney General's office testified that law enforcement's response would hinge on detecting the intent of the offense. He said they would gauge if it was an honest mistake or a criminal act.
“The fraud or the fraudulent statements must be made with the intent ... with the knowledge of the falsity of those statements that with the intent that they be used to produce a ballot fraudulently, or whatever the case may be,” he said.
However, that assurance didn't sit well with critics of SB9, like James Slattery, senior staff attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project. He pointed to Crystal Mason, an African-American woman who received a five-year prison sentence for filling out a provisional ballot during the 2016 election that was not counted. She had not realized anyone convicted of a felony -- as she had, having been previously convicted of tax fraud -- was prohibited from voting under Texas law.
"We have at least one case -- Crystal Mason -- where a person made a good-faith mistake and is going to serve multiple years in jail," he said. "But then you have other people who commit more serious offenses who seem to get off."
Slattery said all of the increased criminal penalties in SB9 will make registering to vote, registering others to vote and then voting itself much more intimidating in Texas.
“So I am a citizen who wants to go out and register people to vote and help them get out to vote," he explained. "But I'm looking at a set of new laws that would send me to jail for longer if I make an innocent mistake. You might think, 'well, maybe my time is better spent elsewhere. Why put up with the risk?' ”
Texas is a state where voter participation is already one of the lowest in the nation. While SB9 does a lot of things to improve election security, it does nothing to try to make voting or registering to vote any easier.