Published 8:00 am Sunday, April 7, 2019

(Austin)  Members of the Senate State Affairs Committee considered a number of bills Monday aimed at improving election security and procedures in Texas.  Mineola Senator Bryan Hughes, who chaired an interim committee studying the issue, offered a number of these measures to address the findings of that panel.  

SB 903, by Hughes, is a comprehensive bill intended to ensure the accuracy of voter rolls by requiring communication and information sharing between local and state officials and agencies who maintain relevant databases.  It would require a voter registrar to notify state officials if they believe a person is improperly registered to vote. Current law only requires such a report if improper voting is suspected. It would direct the Department of Public Safety and Secretary of State’s Office to compare databases containing relevant voter identification information, such as legal name, address, citizenship status, and signatures, every month to determine if any ineligible voters may have registered to vote.  It would also direct DPS to cooperate with the federal Social Security Administration to conduct similar, quarterly comparisons for voter information records that contain a social security number.

Problems with voter roll verification made headlines in late January after the acting Secretary of State issued an advisory that his office, after a database comparison with DPS records, had determined that as many as 95,000 individuals may have improperly registered to vote in Texas, and directed county officials to check their rolls.  This number turned out to be wildly incorrect and led to lawsuits and a federal judge temporarily halting the county verification process at the end of February. Hughes believes this was a consequence of trying to do too much at once. “Texas went a long time without doing this, and so then when we tried to do it, there were problems,” he said.  “What SB 903 would do is get things trued up, and then check on an on-going basis, so we don’t have these huge adjustments, these huge lurches left and right that have to be made.”

Another measure by Hughes, SB 751 would try to get ahead of a looming problem: the capability to make convincing fake videos.  In recent years, technological advances have made it possible to make videos of public figures doing or saying almost anything.  While still detectable by laymen, experts warn a day may come when it’s impossible for an average person to distinguish between a manufactured video and a real one.  This could be a real problem during elections, where a fake video of a candidate saying controversial things or engaging in illegal or scandalous activity could affect the outcome of a vote.  “If this kind of technology is weaponized in the electoral context, it could create real chaos and make it effectively impossible for citizens to make a wise choice,” said Hughes. His bill would make it against the law to create, publish or distribute such videos with the intent of influencing the outcome of an election.  It would only apply in the 30 days leading up to the vote, and violators could face up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine.

In all, the committee heard testimony on 18 bills relating to electoral procedures and security.  This includes SB 1568, by Senator Pat Fallon of Prosper, which would permit the Office of the Attorney General to seek civil penalties against perpetrators of organized election fraud rather than only criminal charges.  SB 901, by Hughes, would enhance the penalty for mail-in ballot fraud from a class A misdemeanor to a state jail felony and would allow registrars to verify signatures by comparing any single available signature on file rather than the current statutory requirements of two or more.  SB 1229 by Houston Senator Paul Bettencourt would require that any county, city or school district post election results, including the total number of votes and number of votes cast per candidate, on their website. All election-related measures remain pending before the committee.

The Senate will reconvene Tuesday, April 2 at 11 a.m.