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Texas Republicans propose a Florida-style election police force and harsher penalties for illegal voting

Texas Republicans are laying the groundwork to move quickly on a number of new changes to the state’s voting laws, including a proposal to create an election police force like the one Florida enacted before the 2022 midterms.

As of Friday, GOP legislators had already prefiled 20 bills in the Texas House and Senate. When the legislative session begins in January, they’re likely to consider many of them seriously.

Most of the bills fall into three categories: legislation that would impose harsher penalties for infractions; expand the state attorney general’s authority to prosecute election and voting crimes; and create a new law enforcement unit dedicated exclusively to enforcing and prosecuting election and voting crimes.

The proposals have alarmed voting rights activists and state Democrats, who tried and failed last year to block a GOP-backed overhaul of election laws — a priority of Gov. Greg Abbott — in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s false claims that widespread fraud cost him a second term. Trump and his allies could not prove their claims in court, while officials in Texas, which overwhelmingly voted for Trump, spent 22,000 hours looking for voter fraud and uncovered only 16 cases of false addresses on registration forms, according to The Houston Chronicle.

The new bills “all kind of generally fit under the bucket of criminalizing voters and voting behavior, and just generally turn elections into crime scenes, where there is this presumption that there is some kind of widespread illegal conduct or activity, despite the fact that there is no evidence that’s the case,” said Liz Avore, a senior policy adviser at Voting Rights Lab, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that tracks voting and state election bills.

Texas Democrats have also been busy, prefiling 42 bills already, all of which, in various ways, aim to ease existing restrictions on voting and voter registration. Advocates note, however, that most aren’t likely to advance in the state, where Republicans hold both chambers of the Legislature as well as the governorship.

Because the Texas Legislature convenes every other year, state lawmakers are often uniquely aggressive when it comes to prefiling — an expedited process of preparing and introducing legislation — before their lawmaking session actually convenes.

The 62 voting rights-related bills Texas lawmakers have already prefiled represent nearly all prefiled voting rights legislation across the country, according to a review of prefiled bills by the Voting Rights Lab and NBC News. As of Friday, state legislators had prefiled voting rights legislation in only a handful of other states: Virginia (three bills), Missouri (two bills) and Nevada (one bill).

An election police force

Republican-authored Texas bills, such as HB 549 and SB 220, propose creating a system of state “election marshals,” who would investigate allegations of violations of election and voting laws and file criminal charges when warranted.

The state House and Senate proposed bills have drawn comparisons to the election police force created earlier this year in Florida by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. DeSantis announced the first charges stemming from that newly formed squad in August, but some of the charges against individuals have already been dropped and legal experts have said it will be extremely difficult for state officials to obtain any convictions.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, who wrote SB 220, said in an interview his bill was designed as a response to a litany of problems with voting in Harris County — the third-largest county in the U.S. — which includes Houston.

“It’s designed to stop election operators from not following the law,” he said. “The author’s intent is to stop what’s happening in Harris County.”

Asked if the draft included language that would prevent authorities from targeting individual voters, Bettencourt said: “I can’t say that it couldn’t be used like that.”

Rep. Valoree Swanson, who wrote a prefiled bill that also proposed such a unit, did not respond to questions.

The chief election marshal would be appointed by and report directly to the Texas secretary of state; the marshal would then appoint a team of other marshals, who’d each have jurisdiction over different geographic regions of the state. Marshals would have the authority to “impound” election records and election equipment, as well as broad subpoena powers over people, records and equipment.

“They essentially weaponize state resources against its own citizens,” said Jasleen Singh, a counsel in the Democracy Program at the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, of the two bills. “It’s evocative of what we saw in Florida.

“These kinds of measures are often justified by lawmakers as preventative of voter fraud, but with voter fraud being so rare, what they actually do, in chasing a problem that does not exist, is contribute to an atmosphere of fear, rather than trust, in our elections,” Singh said.

Harsher penalties

Legislation such as HB 39, HB 52, HB 222, HB 397 and SB 166 aims to raise the penalty for election and voting rights crimes to a felony from a misdemeanor.

Before 2021, voting and election law violations were considered felony crimes under Texas law.

But the broad omnibus election law, called SB 1, enacted in 2021 lowered the penalty level to a misdemeanor in part because of the case of Crystal Mason, who was sentenced in 2018 to five years in prison for attempting to vote while on supervised release from prison. She says she didn’t know a previous felony conviction made her ineligible to cast a ballot in 2016.

Some conservative lawmakers in the state, including Abbott, in the nearly two years since, have been vocal about their desire to re-establish those violations as felonies.

“All my bill does is restore the felony punishment for illegal voting,” Texas Rep. David Spiller, the author of HB 52, said in an interview. “We need to fix it.”

Texas Reps. Andrew Murr and Craig Goldman, and Texas Sen. Bryan Hughes — the authors of similar bills — did not respond to calls and emails requesting comment.

Expanded election authority for the attorney general

A bill called HB 125 would allow the state attorney general to issue civil penalties against local prosecutors who do not enforce or prosecute election and voting crimes of up to $25,000 per violation. The bill would also allow the attorney general to seek an injunction against local prosecutors who are not fully enforcing or prosecuting election and voting crimes and would allow the attorney general to even remove local prosecutors from office.

Another prefiled bill, HB 678, would allow the state attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor in criminal cases involving election and voting law violations, and would shift election law authority to the state attorney general from the secretary of state.

Proponents said they’d push this category of bills in response to a state court ruling from September finding that the Texas attorney general does not, under current law, possess authority to unilaterally prosecute election cases.

“Under the law, a lot of that authority lies with the local D.A., but this bill allows the attorney general to bring accountability,” said Texas Rep. Bryan Slaton, a Republican who wrote HB 125. The bill, he added, would “make sure that those [local] prosecutors are prosecuting.”

Texas Rep. Keith Bell, a Republican who wrote HB 678, did not respond to a phone message requesting comment.

Other proposed changes

Another pair of prefiled Texas bills would require the slate of electors for the winning presidential and vice presidential candidates to vote on whether those candidates are “willing and able” to serve. Under the bill, if a majority of electors finds that the candidates are not, they could then vote for candidates other than those chosen by Texas voters.

Yet another prefiled bill would change Texas’ “open” primary system to a “closed” system — meaning that primary voters could vote only in the primary elections for the political party they’re registered with — and would make it a felony crime for voters who vote or attempt to vote in the other party’s primary election.

Two other prefiled bills would prohibit counties from using elementary and secondary schools as voting locations, while yet another would create a pilot program that would allow the video recording of ballot counting in voting precincts in Texas’ largest cities.

Voting rights advocates interviewed by NBC News argued that the scale, reach and specific aims of many of the bills overall would result in limiting opportunities and access to voting for many voters — and that many served simply to intimidate.

“The net effect is an intimidating one, when you’re lining up laws that go after voters with unwarranted criminal investigations and stiffer penalties,” said Danielle Lang, the senior director of the voting rights unit at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan voting watchdog group.

“We haven’t seen any evidence in Texas suggesting there is a need for these laws here,” she said, “so it really is about sending a message to voters to make them feel uneasy about voting.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com